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FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD: Jo Parfitt’s creative life as serial expat


Columnist Doreen Brett is back, and she’s accompanied by another “great” in the expat publishing world, Jo Parfitt, who has published 30+ books herself while also helping at least a hundred new expat writers publish their first great works. Wow. Who among us can compete? —ML Awanohara

Hello Displaced Nationers! It is my pleasure to present to you the venerable Jo Parfitt, who has been an expat for more than three decades while also carving out a career for herself as author, journalist, writing mentor/teacher, and publisher.

This is not Jo’s first time on the Displaced Nation. A couple of years ago, another expat author, Ana McGinley, interviewed Jo about her decision to found Summertime Publishing, which specializes in publishing books by and for people living abroad.

Summertime, by the way, is turning 10 years old this year. Congratulations, Jo!

As Jo reported to Ana, one of her own books, A Career in Your Suitcase, remains one of Summertime’s top five bestsellers. Is it any wonder, given that Jo is her own best example? Among the many places where she’s lived and worked are three I know well: my native Malaysia, my husband’s home country of Britain, and my current home of the Netherlands, where Jo, too, now resides.

And now let’s hear about Jo’s experience as a serial expat—and how living in so many different places has fed her creative life.

* * *

Welcome, Jo, to the Displaced Nation. First let’s do a quick review of all the places you’ve called “home”. You were born in Stamford, a town in Lincolnshire, UK. A few years back, Stamford was rated the best place to live by the Sunday Times. But you were not content to stay put. Instead you have lived in Dubai, Oman, Norway, Kuala Lumpur, Brunei, and the Netherlands. What got you started on this peripatetic life?

I went abroad the day after I got married, when I was 26. My boyfriend had gone to Dubai for work and I had to marry him to follow him. Before that happened, I already knew I loved being overseas. I had done a French degree and a year abroad, so I was already travelling before I met my husband. But still, I hadn’t imagined living in Dubai and, in fact, did not want to go there at all. But my husband (he was my fiancé at the time) said: “Come for six months. If you don’t, you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.” And thirty years later, we are still living abroad…

Why didn’t you want to go to Dubai?

At that time I was running my own business and doing quite well. And I was really happy in my career and didn’t want to give it up. Career has always been really important to me. When I closed down my business (I was in a partnership) to move to Dubai, I found it absolutely devastating.

So Dubai was a hard landing?

I was the first expat wife in my husband’s company. They had no support for me at all. We weren’t given our own apartment. I ended up sharing a flat with some other chaps who were in my husband’s office. I was lost and lonely and I knew nothing about networking, I knew nothing about portable careers, I knew nothing about being an expat. But then I found a job opportunity for somebody to do some freelance CV writing. So I did, and eventually I became a journalist. When I submitted my CV they said: “Well you’re not very good but you’ve got potential. So you work for me and I’ll shout at you a lot and you’ll learn.” So that’s what happened. One thing led to another and I had a career again.

Can you tell us about where you went next?

From Dubai, we went to Oman for two-and-a-half years, which was heaven. We loved it. We left too soon because after Oman we went to Stavanger, in southwestern Norway. We went from heat and and living outdoors and having help in the house to a cold and rainy place with no help. We stayed 18 months—actually, we cut that posting short. (I’ve been back to Stavanger since and I thought it was wonderful, but at that time, it was just not for me.) We moved back to Stamford, but I didn’t fit in anymore. We were based in the UK for seven years while my husband would commute on the plane or bus or train for work, until finally we decided it was time we all stayed together as a family again, and we went to live in The Hague. My husband and I also moved to Brunei for a short posting, staying just a few months before returning to The Hague. From there my husband got a job in Kuala Lumpur. For me, living in Malaysia was a dream come true. We’d traveled to Southeast Asia while living in Dubai, and I knew right away I wanted to live in that part of the world some day. It was fantastic.

When you repeat being an expat so many times, do you end up being drawn to cities, where you’ll find other well-traveled people?

In Dubai and Oman it was impossible to get to meet the locals; one has no choice but to live in the expat bubble. In Norway, my home was on the edges of the expat bubble because I didn’t feel that they were really my kind of person. To be honest, I don’t know who I thought my kind of person was. I was depressed in Norway, so nothing would have made me happy. When I went back in England, I realized I didn’t fit in anymore because I’ve lived overseas, so I found my community by starting up a professional network of women writers.

In general have you found that living in cities tends to feed your creative drive?

I wrote a blog called Sunny Interval while based in Kuala Lumpur. I wrote briefly in Brunei. Wherever I went, I found things to write about, generally about transition. I am a poet and a columnist at heart. I love finding parallels and being able to compare and contrast cultures. That said, I lost my mojo in KL for quite a long time—I couldn’t seem to find the beautiful bits. But then I had an experience that absolutely changed my life: an opportunity to write a book on Penang, which is located on Malaysia’s northwest coast. As part of the research, I had to interview Penangites, I had to understand the history and get under the skin of the place. That’s when I realised that getting under the skin of a place is the thing that WILL feed your soul, even if the place is not inherently beautiful. It was such a privilege to get to know Muslims and Buddhists, Chinese, Malay, and Indian, and call them all friends.

Does language tend to be a barrier when you’re in a non-English speaking place?

Even though I’m a linguist, I didn’t learn Arabic or Norwegian, I know very little Dutch. But when I went to Malaysia, I decided that I would learn Malay, and it made a huge difference. Boleh lah! (Can do!) And now that I’m back in The Hague, I’m determined to speak more Dutch. I think it’s very important to learn the language, and I am ashamed that I didn’t learn Arabic or Norwegian, or Dutch the first time around.

How about the more remote places you have lived? Do they, too, feed your creativity and if so in what ways? And how do you keep from feeling isolated?

I write! As I mentioned, I did a degree in French. As part of my studies, I did a year teaching in France in a really boring small town and I didn’t have any friends there either. I would walk around the town for something to do. And I would walk in the shops and I would look in the windows. And I looked at the wonderful display of tarts and I just thought: “”French Tarts”—that’s a great title for a book. I’ll write it.” And what it did was it gave me something interesting to do and a way to meet people and eat (which I loved!). Because I couldn’t cook I decided to ask everybody I met in the town if they’d have me to dinner, and if they had me to dinner they had to make me a tart and I would write about it and would put their recipe in my book! I was 20. I had utmost confidence that they would say yes. So I went to dinner with the doctor, the dentist, the lady who ran the baby shop, teachers from the school, the man who ran the bicycle shop… I just said to anybody, I want to come to dinner. And I wrote the draft of French Tarts, which came out when I was 24. That was my first book.

What a great story! And I happen to know that’s not your only cookery book. After all, you brand yourself as a bookcook…

When I was in Oman, I had the idea with a friend of mine of writing a cookbook on dates because none of the expats knew how to cook with dates. So we wrote a cookbook on dates. We invented the recipes (I could cook by then!) and did everything else. Though it looked terrible, it sold very well because people wanted the content.

Are there any other remote places where you’ve lived that have fed your creativity?

The most remote place I’ve lived in was Kuala Belait in Brunei, which for those who don’t know if a small sovereign state on the north coast of the island of Borneo (the rest of the island is Malaysian and Indonesian). Kuala Belait was really remote. There was nothing to do there at all. I actually went online and googled bloggers in the area. And I found one blogger, who was 20 years younger. I met her for coffee. I did everything I could to find people. In the end, I started a writer’s circle. I ran a few writing classes and joined a French conversation group. And I was only there for three months. You have to make an effort to reach out to people, but the Internet does make it easier.

I know you’re a great networker. Do you tend to network online or in person?

I network with people online. But I also make sure I network with people in person. I sometimes think, it’s been three weeks and I haven’t seen anybody apart from my family, so I get on the phone and book lunches and things.

Do writers sometimes find it a struggle to meet people IRL?

When I was working from home as a writer, I realised that if I stayed in all day and all evening and wrote, I got depressed. And so I used to go for a walk at lunchtimes and at least try to engage with somebody in a shop. I am an introvert when I work. But I feed my soul by being out. I like to see people face to face every week. I don’t think you get much energy from talking to somebody through the email and texting.

You have 31 books! Do you have a favorite?

Out of my 31 books, I would say that a couple have been pivotal for me. One I’ve already mentioned: French Tarts. It made me realise that If you’ve got a good idea, then you can do anything. The other is A Career in Your Suitcase, which is now in its fourth edition and still going strong. I had the idea for writing it when we first went to Norway. There were no English publications for me to write for. I started working on this and an expat anthology called Forced to Fly.

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

I’m in The Hague now. I like belonging in a community. I love the fact that everything’s familiar. When you’ve moved and moved and moved, you really want to feel that you belong somewhere. And knowing the way and not having to use a map and knowing where the doctors is: it’s a great feeling. Here in The Hague I’ve also come back to old friends, and that’s been fantastic. I didn’t have friends in England really. They’d all gone off to university or wherever. England was difficult. I think Norway was the hardest. England was the next hardest. Coming back here to the Netherlands has been the easiest because it wasn’t a repatriation as I thought it might feel. It was a reposting. It had all of the positives and none of the negatives.

Tell me about your new venture taking writers away on retreats. I believe you call them “me”-treats?

This has been an ambition of mine for some time. I’m holding what I call Writing Me-Treats. These are residential holidays for four or five nights. They’re for people who love to write, to come and indulge in writing and sharing and doing beautiful things that will make them feel really inspired. For example, in The Hague, we will do the walk in the Jewish quarter and talk about what happened to the Jews. Understanding that has really deepened my love of the place. My first writer’s Me-Treat is in Penang, this month. My next writer’s Me-Treat is in The Hague, which I have timed to be exactly after the Families in Global Transition (FIGT) conference. The next one is in France, in a mini chateau. Then Devon. Then Tuscany.

Do you have any advice for other global creatives?

If you’re a writer, try getting into a writers circle. That’s where I found my soulmates. People come, we do some speed writing, we share what we’ve written, then I create a task and we do an exercise. It’s about being forced to write, not having an excuse or procrastinating. It shows people what they can do in 10 minutes. It empowers them to think they are good enough. I think a lot of writers want to keep what they’ve written to themselves because they’re too afraid to share it. Or they’re too scared that somebody else will plagiarise it. Which is a real worry. What you get in a writer’s circle is a safe space. People get very friendly. They get very close.

I should remind our readers at this juncture that you have your own publishing house for expat books.

Yes, I run Summertime Publishing. I’ve been helping people to write books since 2002. I teach people online and have three online courses: people can study by email as well. Four years ago I decided to run this writer’s scholarship, the Parfitt-Pascoe Writing Residency. I would train writers, they would cover the FIGT conference, and I would publish what they wrote. This is about to be my fifth year. It’s a wonderful opportunity for people to get training from me for free, to get lots of mentoring for free, and to increase their network.

Any recommendations for the wannabe writers out there?

The other thing I would recommend is that you either write a journal, and do it religiously, or write a blog. Whenever something happens, that I think is of note. I write a blog post. I write it for people I know, so I feel safe enough to be authentic and vulnerable, to show how stupid I am, and my mistakes. And I write as if no stranger will read it. And it becomes a record of my life. A lot of people are very scared to expose themselves like that. But don’t be.

Thanks so much, Jo, for sharing your story with us.

* * *

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

STAY TUNED for this coming week’s fab posts.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a biweekly round up of posts from The Displaced Nation—and so much more! Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Photo credits:
Photos via Pixabay.

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Alice in Expatland: Paying tribute as her 150th anniversary year winds to a close

Alice in Expatland

Curiouser and curiouser.

Once upon a time, I found myself chasing a white rabbit with a gloriously old-fashioned pocket watch and falling
d
o
w
n
a hOle into Aliceland, where people stood about in anoraks and talked about the weather.

I was an expat in the United Kingdom.

Next I stepped through a looking glass into a topsy-turvy wonder-world where commuters in suits sporting high-tech timepieces were dashing about, afraid to be late for apparently important dates.

I was an expat in Japan.

In 2015 the world celebrated the 150th birthday of Lewis Carroll’s first Alice story, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and, although I’m no longer an expat—I repatriated back to East Coast USA some time ago—I have spent the year paying tribute to this Victorian heroine for being my role model, or muse, during the period when I lived abroad.

What drew me so powerfully to the Alice stories? Skeptics may surmise that this Alice obsession of mine comes from some childish need to exoticize the adventures that took place during my time overseas. By comparing myself to Alice, I’m implying that my expat life was even more extraordinary than it actually was.

These critics may also think I’m being condescending in implicitly likening the natives of the UK and Japan to talkative animals or mad people.

For anyone who’s not feeling the thing I have for Alice: My point is, being an expat made me feel like a child again, especially when I found myself struggling to communicate basic points or failing to understand what was happening around me.

At moments like those, if someone had told me lobsters could dance, cats could have grins that fade in and out, and men could be shaped like eggs—I would have believed them. (In fact, I did see a lobster dance. That was at a fish restaurant in Tokyo. It hadn’t mastered the quadrille, though.)

“Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle…”

Alice is a child on the verge of adolescence—and the expat me could relate to that portion of her story as well. Her statement “It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then” echoed in my head throughout my expat life—especially towards the end, when I was an American who spoke with a British accent and, similar to Through the Looking Glass Alice, had lost my first name. (As the only foreigner in a Japanese office, I was always referred to by my last name, with the suffix “-san”.)

Psychologist Eve Hemming addresses what it feels like to lose one’s cultural bearings in her recently published Scatterlings: A Tapestry of Afri-expat Tales. As she tells it, her decision to emigrate from her native South Africa to New Zealand was traumatic. Her arrival in “the land of the long white cloud” of Māori legend was akin to “falling through Alice in Wonderland’s looking glass and waking up an extra-terrestrial in an alien landscape.” Not long after, she had the chance to return to her homeland for a brief visit, and felt as though she has “plummeted down the rabbit hole back into Africa.”

These descriptions make me think of the Cheshire Cat’s advice to poor disorientated Alice:

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”

If you stay in the expat world long enough, you feel, and are treated like, an alien wherever you go. I can still recall going home to America and having people refuse to believe I was American because of my credible British accent. They also found it strange I was so apologetic, a trait that had come from working in a Japanese office.

I had become one of those people who are at home everywhere—and nowhere; an adult yet a Third Culture Kid.

“How do you know I’m mad?”

Although I didn’t know it at the time, Lewis Carroll’s wonderland story could be a textbook illustration of the four stages of expat acculturation, as outlined by psychologist Dr. Cathy Tsang-Feign in her manual, Living Abroad.

As soon as she lands at the bottom of the rabbit hole, Alice enters Stage One: Elation. She glimpses a “most fabulous” garden and samples a delightful drink that has “a sort of mixed flavour of cherry-tart, custard, pine-apple, roast turkey, toffee, and hot buttered toast.”

It is not long, however, before she enters Stage Two: Resistance. “It was much pleasanter at home,” thought poor Alice, “when one wasn’t always growing larger and smaller, and being ordered about by mice and rabbits.”

At the same time, though, she shows potential for entering Stage Three: Transformation, when, after saying she almost wishes she hadn’t gone down the rabbit hole, she reflects: ”…and yet—and yet—it’s rather curious, you know, this sort of life!”

And, although Alice never quite reaches Stage Four: Integration (when cultural barriers are bridged)—she leaves Wonderland still feeling a bit displaced—the memories of her adventures clearly have an impact. In the next Alice story, Carroll shows her as being keen for another adventure, why she steps through the looking-glass…

“And yet—and yet—it’s rather curious, you know, this sort of life!”

The quality that Alice develops in spades (and hearts, clubs, diamonds) is resilience—which by many expert accounts is the key on a glass plate that opens the door to a successful expat life.

As Linda Janssen puts it in her book The Emotionally Resilient Expat, to have a successful transition into living in another part of the world, we need to know how to adapt, adjust or simply accept what cannot be changed.

Janssen, an American, called the blog she kept while living in the Hague “Adventures in Expatland.” She said the title perfectly expressed her feelings about an experience that was “incredibly exhilarating, challenging, and occasionally maddening.”

I know what she means. There were several instances during my times in the UK and Japan when I needed to believe six impossible things before breakfast… By the same token, though, I knew that after a fall into expatland, I should think nothing of tumbling down stairs—a thought that kept me going through a second expat assignment, and now repatriation, possibly the curious-est wonderland of them all.

Thank you, Alice, for being my heroine, and I hope you enjoyed your big birthday. Now that you’re 150, you shouldn’t be taking any stuff and nonsense from the March Hare. Tell him to pour you that glass of wine! Cheers, kanpai, bottoms up—from one of your top expat fans xoxoxo

* * *

ML Awanohara, one of the Displaced Nation’s founders and its current editor, has been conducting a series of “wonderlanded” interviews with expat authors whose lives, and works, in some way echo Alice’s adventures. If you find her Alice comparisons amusing or even a bit nonsensical, be sure to subscribe to the weekly Displaced Dispatch, which has an “Alice Obsession” feature.

STAY TUNED for more fab posts.

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

Related posts:

Photo credits: Top row: Ann Smith – Sleepy Summers Day – Lobster Quadrille, by sea +; Final Tea Party, by Joe Rice via Flickr; and Float in the Tres Reyes parade (Seville, Spain), by Paul Asman and Jill Lenoble. Bottom row: Night cat, by Raffaele Esposito; The Pool of Tears, by sea +; and Have I gone mad (Berlin), by onnola. All photos via Flickr (CC BY 2.0), except last one, which is via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: The story of Jo Parfitt and her expat press, Summertime Publishing

booklust-wanderlust-2015

Attention displaced bookworms! As our book review columnist, Beth Green, an American expat in Prague (she is also an Adult Third Culture Kid), is still honeymooning (literally—congratulations, Beth!), we have loaned her space this month to seasoned expat and freelance writer Ana McGinley, who will tell us the story of a well-known international creative in the expat book world: Jo Parfitt, founder of Summertime Publishing.

Hello, readers, and thanks Displaced Nation for this opportunity to talk about Jo Parfitt. A journalist, editor, writer, speaker and teacher, Jo has lived abroad for 26 years—in France, Dubai, Oman, Norway, the Netherlands, Brunei and now Malaysia. She is the founder of Summertime Publishing, which specializes in publishing books by and for people living abroad.

Eighteen years ago, Jo published A Career in Your Suitcase, her guide to creating a portable career. Now in its 4th edition, the book continues to grow in popularity as the number of expat accompanying partners, mostly women, find themselves seeking new mobile careers to replace the jobs and careers relinquished to embark on a global relocation.

Jo Parfitt and A Career in a Suitcase

Jo Parfitt on Bankastraat, Den Haag, Netherlands, one of many former homes; book cover art for her bestseller, A Career in a Suitcase, now in its 4th edition.

Jo’s own career in a suitcase

The success of that book inspired Jo to set up her own business mentoring expats in search of suitable career opportunities. Having written 31 books herself, Jo decided to extend her training to include writing skills guidance for new authors. Several of them have partnered with her to publish their works, and Summertime Publishing—which she’d first set up to publish her cookbook, Dates, written while living in Oman—took off.

After nearly two decades, Summertime has a catalogue of over 100 publications covering many facets of expat life, including:

Summertime Top Five

Jo recruits her dream team…

A year ago, Jo enlisted the help of former Displaced Nation columnist Jack Scott, he of Jack the Hack fame. Jack had published his book, Perking the Pansies (a memoir based on his popular expat blog of that name), with Jo (he now has a sequel out: Turkey Street).

In addition to Jack, Jo has hired Jane Dean (who was Jack’s editor).

Jo, Jane and Jack have British roots, although Jane is now a US citizen, yet all three are based in different global locations: Jo in Kuala Lumpur; Jack in Norwich, UK; and Jane in The Hague, Netherlands. All three have in common the experience of relinquishing previous careers to accompany their partners—and establishing successful portable careers in the publishing world.

(Left to right) Jo Parfitt, Jack Scott and Jane Dean (supplied).

(Left to right) Jo Parfitt, Jack Scott and Jane Dean (supplied).

Today Jo takes care of sales and marketing, business growth, client intake, big-picture edits and manuscript assessment at Summertime Publishing. Jane is the chief editor and production manager, and Jack is responsible for royalties, administration, digitization and social media.

Business is conducted digitally via computer networking and bi-monthly business meetings on Skype—and regular Skype meetings with their team of designers. The three aim to physically meet each year for the company annual general meeting.

Jo says that the recent expansion of her business is directly related to the growth in the globally mobile workforce. As more people relocate to new locations, the thirst for knowledge about expat issues, both unique and common to specific destinations, increases. Expats tend to be well-educated individuals capable of resettling in unfamiliar places and adjusting to new cultures, without losing their own cultural identity. By necessity expat partners often dive deep into the culture of their new destination, interacting with local people and services daily. These accrued experiences, good and bad, can form a strong basis for a good story.

The summertime—& sunshine—of the expat life

Anyone who is familiar with Jo has noticed a theme running through her life and work having to do with summertime and sunshine. Jo says she named her press “Summertime” after the song by Gershwin, which she sees as her theme tune. “I am a positive person and love the optimism and hope in the lyrics,” she says.

Having spent ten years in the intense sunshine of the Middle East, Jo has also published a novel called Sunshine Soup, about expat life in Dubai, and she currently keeps a blog about the life she leads with her husband in Malaysia, called Sunny Interval, because after postings in Europe they get to enjoy the sunshine again.

Photo credit: A Sunny Interval[http://sunnyinterval.com/2014/11/23/life-ocean-microwave/]

Photo credit: A Sunny Interval.

There is also, of course, Jo’s sunny disposition to consider. “I am an optimist at heart and like to see the good in everyone,” she says, adding that, since setting up her press, “my motto has been Sharing What I Know to Help Others to Grow.”

Further to which, in closing I’d like to share some tips Jo has for expats who dream of writing a book:

• Do your own market research to see whether books covering your topic already exist. Most mainstream bookstores do not have a specified section for expatriate books—so look online.

• Visit Expat Bookshop and Summertime Publishing. (Interested in publishing with us? Send a message via the contact form on the site.)

• Download the free booklets offered by Summertime Publishing:

• Consider the practical aspects of publishing a book. Writers who enter a contract with Summertime Publishing will be offered editing, printing and promoting services tailored to suit their individual needs.

• Most importantly, assess your available time and lifestyle and evaluate the real possibilities of being able to regularly focus on your book project. writing a book demands a high level of focus.

And now for Jo’s parting pearls:

I believe everyone has a story in them. I tell someone that if their story is likely to inspire, support, inform or entertain another person then it is worth telling.

* * *

Thank you, Ana, for introducing us to Jo Parfitt. Her dedication to the cause of publishing expat works, along with her sunny disposition, has extended the feeling of summertime for me a little longer! Readers, how about you? Any questions for Ana +/or Jo?

STAY TUNED for the next fab post!

Born in Australia, Ana McGinley has now lived in seven countries in 15 years, so more than qualifies as a serial expat. She writes, edits, reviews and researches articles for various online publications, including serving as the review coordinator for Summertime Publishing—all of which distracts her from finishing her book about caring for ageing parents from abroad, a topic related to her previous work as a social worker with older people. She currently lives in the Netherlands with her Canadian husband and four children, all born on different continents. To get to know Ana better, please follow her HuffPost column. You can also view her portfolio of published works here.

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

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GLOBAL FOOD GOSSIP: When facing repatriation after 18 years of the expat life, bring on the comfort food!

Serial expat (and soon to be repat!) Joanna Masters-Maggs is back with some juicy global food gossip to share.
Global Food Gossip 062315
“Oh, I see, it’s that time again, is it?” My husband entered the kitchen and sniffed the air. “It’s smells like Christmas, but it’s 30 degrees outside. “You’ll be wanting tea with that gingerbread?” Sighing he reached for the kettle.

Now, I’m not saying that expat life calls for comfort food more than any other lifestyle, but it does have it’s own rhythm of needs. For me, the main calls for comfort come during the entry and exit period of a new location.

I am now facing moving on from France—and frankly, even my beloved madeleine is not up to the job.

I need the kind of comfort food that warms up the winter, as neither the glorious weather nor the proximity of pools and beaches here in Provence can distract me this time.

Bikini be damned, my next move will be a return to England.

It is hard to imagine that repatriation can be more alarming than a move from one foreign country to another. Yet, after 18 years abroad and seven intercontinental moves, I am discovering that it is.

Our house in England is our holiday home, and we have few of the friends and none of the social networks we would have built had we stayed put. All the friends we have made at various offices, playgroups, schools, dog training groups and sundry activities are scattered across several continents. We will be in the interesting position of not belonging, while giving every outward appearance of doing so and no possibility of joining a repat support group (do such things even exist?).

You understand why I am reaching for the gingerbread now?

gingerbread-repatriation

Gingerbread by roxymjones via Pixabay.

The act of making gingerbread is a comfort in itself. Just watching the butter, syrup and sugar melt together and swirl in the pan, gives one time to relax and think.

Mm…as I watch the ingredients swirl, I’m thinking about cultural comfort foods of locations past.

Morning sickness in New Orleans calls for Morning Call

For anyone into comfort eating, my former home of New Orleans is a dangerous place. There are just too many temptations along the path of righteous eating, beginning with crawfish stew, jambalaya, seafood gumbo…

But it was beignets with coffee from Café du Monde or Morning Call (the less touristy choice, favored by locals) that became my preferred source of solace.

"City Park 12-12-12 Morning Call Coffee Beignets Dunk," by Infrogmation of New Orleans (CC BY 2.0).

“City Park 12-12-12 Morning Call Coffee Beignets Dunk,” by Infrogmation of New Orleans via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Of course life in New Orleans is pretty fabulous, especially when you are lucky enough to live in the French Quarter and see the life that exists behind the touristy façade. But comfort requirements are still there. Coffee and beignets are a fabulous hangover buster for one thing and for another they sure beat morning sickness into retreat while providing a good dose of the additional calcium an expectant mum needs. For me, the beignet and café au lait was the multi-tasking workhorse of comfort foods.

When it came time to leave the Big Easy, the beignet soothed my sadness, and I was careful to ensure I had a good recipe (see end of post) should it be needed to help with my adjustment to the next location: Den Haag.

The only problem, of course, with making your own beignets is the terror one feels when cooking with large quantities of hot fat—so it was with relief that I quickly discovered a more convenient way to ease my emotional entry into The Hague.

A cold arrival in Holland calls for oliebollen

We arrived in the middle of a particularly cold Christmas season. You can only imagine my delight at catching my first whiff of oliebollen and appelflappen, which fills the air that time of year.

Oliebollen is a Dutch style of doughnut that is traditionally eaten on New Year’s Eve, and appelflappen are a kind of apple beignet—YES!—served with sugar and cinnamon and sold from little stands throughout the Christmas season.

What a happy Christmas that turned out to be. What joy to have a little bag of those to warm both your chilly fingers and the depths of your heart.

How can you not love living in such a place?

Dumpy in Brazil calls for Disk Cook

And then there was Brazil. Now Brazil provided a different sort of comfort food to get me through the hard times. Being pregnant and feeling dumpy in a land full of girls from Ipanema in tiny bikinis isn’t exactly fun—but then, suffering from the heat, I cut off all my hair. Short.

You don’t do that in Brazil. It’s akin to cutting off your femininity. It’s ugly.

Happily unaware of this and feeling as though I was channeling mid 1990s Meg Ryan, I returned home from the hairdresser. My housekeeper took one look of me and clapped her hands loudly to her cheeks with a look of pure horror. After a slight pause and in an unnaturally high voice, she said “Madame looks beautiful”—before making her excuses and disappearing for half an hour.

The next few days were a bit unsettling as Maria avoided eye contact. It wasn’t that I minded her thinking my hair was ugly, more that I was now aware of how little I understood the culture. How many other things was I getting wrong?

As insecure as it makes me sound, I decided not to compound one aesthetic error with that of gaining weight, too. I avoided thoughts of my beignet recipe and my go-to home remedy of buttered toast. I also steered clear of the local padarias (bakeries). Instead I filled up on fruit.

But the thing is, comfort food is the kind of thing that finds you and it doesn’t have to come in carbohydrate form. You just need to be open to it: it being a well-rounded flavor that puts your taste buds at ease.

The comfort food of Brazil found me rather quickly. Disc Cook is a service which will collect food from a huge list of restaurants and deliver to your house. A new restaurant opened in our area and we decided to try it out. Imagine my surprise when the healthy sounding chicken liver and spinach dish turned out to be my next comfort food.

Disk Cook screenshot.

Disk Cook screenshot, taken 24 June 2015.

No, hear me out. Full-flavoured meat that melted in the mouth, cooked with balsamic vinegar and pine nuts. Yes, I know it sounds odd, but it was so richly satisfying, I couldn’t get enough of it. I even took comfort in the cold leftovers of that dish, straight from the fridge.

In honesty, however, comforting as it was, it can never qualify as true comfort food. Firstly, it comes from a good restaurant and true comfort food should not be exclusive. Secondly, I was never able to find or make up that recipe for myself. If it is too hard to lay your hands on, it isn’t comfort food. Comfort food cannot be a cause of any stress—other than the weekly weigh-in, of course.

Enough of my unabashed wallowing, and now for my beignet recipe

As I write, I am beginning to feel a little nostalgic and rather sad again. The problem with being in a constant state of serial expatness is that each time you leave one place, you remember the pain of leaving the last. It is a sort of travellers’ emotional add-on game. Sometimes I have to walk away from it. That is true now.

Perhaps next time I can tell you how I found solace from homesickness and last-location-sickness in the foods of Malaysia, Venezuela and Saudi.

(If you have had enough of this unabashed wallowing, I apologise—but would politely point out that at least I haven’t descended to mentioning visits to certain popular fast food chains, which I have no doubt we perpetual expats have all indulged in at least once or twice. For that we must be grateful.)

New Orleans-style Beignets, adapted from The Ultimate Southern Living Cookbook
NOTE: I made the conversions to grams years ago. Metric rocks!

Ingredients:
1 package dried yeast
3 tablespoons warm water (hand hot)
180 ml milk
150g sugar
28g shortening (or lard—which I prefer)
1 tsp salt
375g all-purpose flour
1 large egg
Vegetable oil
Powdered sugar

Method
Combine the yeast and water and leave to stand for five minutes.

Combine the milk with the sugar, shortening and salt in a saucepan over a low heat until the fat melts. Remove from the heat and leave to cool until again hand hot. Very hot liquid will kill the yeast and so it will not rise. If your hand can tolerate the heat, so too can the yeast.

Combine yeast mixture, liquid mixture, two cups of the flour and the egg in a large mixing bowl. Beat at medium speed with an electric mixer for two minutes. Gradually stir in as much of the remaining flour as you need to make a soft dough.

Put dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic (about 10 minutes). Place in a buttered bowl, cover and leave to rise in a warm place for one hour until doubled in size.

Punch dough back, turn onto a floured surface and roll out into a 30 x 25cms rectangle. Cut into two-inch squares and place them onto a lightly floured surface where they can be covered and left to rise until double in size (about 45 minutes).

Pour oil into a pan to a depth of about 3 or 4” and heat to 375° F (190 °C). Fry the beignets four at a time until golden. Drain on paper towels. Sprinkle with icing sugar and serve warm. YUM.

* * *

Readers, we invite you to continue the food gossip! What new comfort foods have you added to your list on your moves around the globe? And do you have any words of comfort for Joanna on her imminent repatriation? Be sure to let us know in the comments!

Joanna Masters-Maggs was displaced from her native England 17 years ago, and has since attempted to re-place herself in the USA, Holland, Brazil, Malaysia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and now France. She describes herself as a “global food gossip”, saying: “I’ve always enjoyed cooking and trying out new recipes. Overseas, I am curious as to what people buy and from where. What is in the baskets of my fellow shoppers? What do they eat when they go home at night?”

STAY TUNED for the next fab post!

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