The Displaced Nation

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Tag Archives: United States

“Unenthusiastic about enthusiasm”: On Sarah Lyall, the relief of being a returning expat, and never getting over the feeling of cultural discombobulation

CulturallyDiscombobulatedFor today’s post ML Awanohara (doyenne of this particular piece of the interweb) suggested that Sarah Lyall‘s recent piece in The New York Times (“Ta-Ta, London. Hello, Awesome”) might provide me with a suitable topic to chisel out a post for the Displaced Nation.

I’ll be honest and admit (though I never articulated this to ML) that I was rather resistant and a tad unenthusiastic to the idea. I’d previously skim-read Sarah Lyall’s book, The Anglo Files: A Field Guide to the British, and found myself irritated by her observations about her life as an American transplant to London.

In short, I didn’t enjoy it. I was left uncharmed and felt it had about it an omnipresent smug tone.

Bill Bryson did it best

Recently, I’ve had a similar reaction with British academic Terry Eagleton‘s new book, Across The Pond (goodness, even the title sounds like another sub-Bryson knock-off), about his thoughts on living in America.

So I’m an equal-opportunity offender on this matter.

Perhaps foreigner-writing-about-their-adopted-home is a sub-genre that is not for me, which is unfortunate considering that’s the very subject of my personal blog, Culturally Discombobulated (now that I think of it, it sounds like a sub-Bryson knock-off, too). Having read Lyall’s article, I suppose she would call this attitude typically English: at once self-loathing and arrogant.

So I decided I would ignore ML’s suggestion and instead write another Capital Ideas post. As I was about to start writing it (well, start thinking about writing it, if I’m going to be entirely honest), I noticed in my inbox an email from my wife telling me to read this article.  Like Sarah Lyall, Mrs W is an American who has spent time living in London before returning to the US.

Putting my initial reservations to one side, I decided to see just what I was missing.

I must admit, Sarah’s right about L.G.

First, a little bit of background: Sarah Lyall has been The New York Times London correspondent for 18 years. Her article this week was about her repatriation to her home country.

I’ll be honest. Unlike when I read her book, The Anglo Files, I found myself more charmed by her writing and observations. This could be the result of the shorter form of a newspaper article, my mellowing, or far more likely our common enemy that is Loyd Grossman—Sarah’s wish on first moving to the UK was that she wouldn’t end up sounding like her more famous compatriot.

Readers who have not spent any considerable time in the UK are probably oblivious to L.G.’s existence. A television presenter (who was host of the original MasterChef, which other than name bears scant resemblance to Fox’s Gordon Ramsey vehicle) as well as a range of pasta sauces (I’ve no idea why, given that he’s not a chef), Loyd Grossman is in possession of the oddest transatlantic accent. It’s preppy New Englander meets Sloane Square yuppie, and just hearing it makes you want to declare class war.

For all of us in clear and present danger of one day developing a transatlantic accent, Loyd Grossman is a stark and terrifying cautionary tale.

…and about us?

Sometimes when I am reading a foreigner’s perspective on the British, I am struck by how awful we sound—a complete bunch of miserable bastards that have developed a carapace of irony and delight in popping positivity like it were a balloon at a child’s birthday party.

Is it any wonder Sarah got a bit fed up with our lack of enthusiasm:

…Britons are not automatically impressed by what I always thought were attractive American qualities—straightforwardness, openness, can-doism, for starters—and they suspect that our surface friendly optimism might possibly be fake. (I suspect that sometimes they might possibly be right.)

Once, in an experiment designed to illustrate Britons’ unease with the way Americans introduce themselves in social situations (in Britain, you’re supposed to wait for the host to do it), I got a friend at a party we were having to go up to a man he had never met. “Hi, I’m Stephen Bayley,” my friend said, sticking out his hand.

“Is that supposed to be some sort of joke?” the man responded.

The pursuit of happiness may be too garish a goal, it turns out, in the land of the pursuit of not-miserableness. After enough Britons respond with “I can’t complain” when you ask them how they are, you begin to feel nostalgic about all those psyched Americans you left behind.

After reading this piece, my wife said that she’d forgotten that so much of my personality was cultural. “I thought,” she said, “that it might be time for you to have some therapy, but then I realized you’re just British—no amount of therapy can fix that.”

* * *

I’ve not experienced what it is like to repatriate yourself back home. I do know, however, that many of you have. Do let me know in the comments below what struck you about moving back and what you missed about the adopted country you left.

Love Living Overseas: An interview with Michelle Garrett aka The American Resident

Displaced Nation Blog - Michelle Alnwick 2In April’s Alice Awards we featured expat blogger Michelle Garrett (an American who has made a home for herself in Britain). She won an “Alice” for her most recent column in Expat Focus, in which she asked readers whether their experience living abroad has inspired them to write a book.

Michelle’s column certainly struck a chord with us here at The Displaced Nation as well as leaving us intrigued and wanting to know more. Regular readers know that we always like to focus on expat writing and highlight it, whether it be Jack the Hack’s tips or our lists of the best books for, by and about expats.

Michelle revealed in that post that she is working on not one but two expat-related books: the first, a helpful guide for unhappy expats called Love Living Overseas; the second, a novel. Today Michelle has kindly agreed to answer my questions about why so many expats find themselves blogging or attempting to write books, as well as her own writing plans.

We enjoyed reading your article at Expat Focus about whether expats necessarily have to write expat books. Why do you think so many people who live abroad feel like writing a book about the experience?
Humans are storytellers. It’s how we share experiences and how we learn. Blogs and self-publishing have opened up a new way of storytelling and when we experience something life changing, as many expats do, we want to tell the story and many of us do so through these mediums. Our stories may be in the form of autobiography or a fictionalized account of our experiences.

Some books are less about the story and more about tips or self-help. These books are often written by expats who have had a hard time with culture shock and once they move through those difficult months or years they feel compelled to help others.

Do expats have something unique to say?
As with any type of book writing, people need to really research the market before they can know if they have something unique to contribute. I do come across expat books, whether stories or books of tips where the author doesn’t seem to have done their research, and the story or information is nothing new or exceptional. However, the nature of the expat niche means there are a variety of ways to spin a story and many different angles to pitch tips, so there should be a wide variety of expat literature for our shelves!

In my research for Love Living Overseas, a book for unhappy expats, I have tried to read the best examples of books in the expat niche, and then see how I can best contribute to that collection.

What are the best examples in the genre, in your opinion?
This list is by no means complete, but among my favorites are:

Expat Women: Confessions, by Andrea Martins and Victoria Hepworth: a valuable book in that these are real questions people have asked (some quite gritty) and many of them I’ve not seen covered in other places.

Living Your Best Life Abroad, by Jeanne A Heinzer: a wonderful book for those of us who need a bit of step-by-step guidance for learning how to do just that: live our best lives abroad.

The Expert Expat, by Melissa Brayer Hess and Patricia Linderman: a fantastic resource covering almost every aspect of the relocation process, including pets, children, and safety—they even include tips for keeping in touch when you move on again.

Tell us more about the two books you are working on.
Love Living Overseas, a book for unhappy expats to be published this autumn, is intended for accompanying partners as well as those expats who have moved to the home countries of their foreign partners. I was once an unhappy expat and wanted to share what I’ve learned through my experiences and research. It’s a book I wish I’d had in the early days—a shortcut to expat happiness!

The book will contribute to the existing expat literature by taking advantage of the Internet in a new way, really using the strengths and opportunities of the Internet to my and my readers’ advantage.

The other book I’m working on is a novel about an American expat who is tired of feeling worthless. She married a British man to escape her dull life, but it hasn’t worked out and she is left adrift in Britain. She is sure there’s more to life than what she’s experiencing, and is equally sure she doesn’t deserve it. On impulse she accepts an invitation from a friend who is driving across the country and needs a companion for the journey. When she reaches their destination, she takes advantage of her anonymity to start a new life with a new identity, only to realize she is actually discovering her true self. I’m playing with the idea we expats often discuss about moving to a new place and taking advantage of the fresh start.

Would you ever consider writing a memoir or “life map,” as Judy Dunn calls it?
Definitely, but perhaps only for my entertainment, not for public consumption! I LOVE the term “life map” by the way—what a great description.

Do you prefer writing fiction or non-fiction?
I love creating books that help others.

When I first brought my new blended British family (7 of us!) to Minnesota, where I grew up, I realized that they would enjoy the experience more if they knew a bit more about Minnesota so I created a booklet of interesting facts. (Did you know that Minnesota and Great Britain are approximately the same square miles?)

And I am really enjoying writing Love Living Overseas because I truly feel it will be a helpful book.

But I also love inventing stories and playing with allegory and symbolism.

What are the biggest challenges of each genre?
I think the biggest challenge for non-fiction is providing information in a captivating way. Tips and facts can be dull—even helpful tips and facts.

As far as fiction goes, I find it challenging to create a believable story that moves people, but it’s a challenge I love.

We notice you are featuring quite a few writers on your own blog, The American Resident, of late. What lessons have you picked up from them? Take, for instance, your interview with the Aussie novelist Allison Rushby, who’s written a travel memoir: Keep Calm and Carry Vegemite. What was the most interesting thing she had to say?
Allison was lovely to work with and very interesting to correspond with regarding writing and expat life. One of my favorite comments of hers on writing Keep Calm and Carry Vegemite was:

… it’s very rare to write a memoir that is 100% true to what happened. It’s not that you lie to the reader, but sometimes events need to be shifted around in time and so on for the story to work—to be cohesive and to make sense in a story-like format. I was worried about doing this at first, but, in retrospect, I can see how the book just wouldn’t have made sense if I hadn’t done it.

* * *

Thanks, Michelle! Readers, that’s some sound advice from Michelle about not assuming your expat experience is unique and researching the market first. Do you have any follow-up comments or questions for her? (Want to learn more about Michelle? Follow her blog, The American Resident, or on Twitter.)

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

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, another installment in the life of our fictional expat heroine, Libby. (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)

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img: Michelle Garrett

EXPAT BOOK REVIEW: “Trucking in English” by Carolyn Steele


Today we review Carolyn Steele’s Trucking in English: a memoir of being a woman in what is very much a man’s world: that of long-haul tractor-trailor driving in North America.  A Londoner born and bred, Carolyn is now a Canadian citizen and lives in Kitchener, Ontario, where she ran a Bed & Breakfast for five years before trying her hand at negotiating 18-wheelers. Depending on who is asking,  she “maintains that she is either multi-faceted or easily bored”. Confirming this, her résumé states that, in addition to being a lady trucker, she has also been a psychologist and a London Ambulance Service paramedic, while her hobbies include tatting, a form of lace-making.

Trucking in English is available from SmashwordsAmazon (Canada, USA, UK), and Barnes & Noble, but this week we at TDN are in luck: Carolyn is giving away 3 ebook copies to Displaced Nation readers! (Details below.)

TITLE: Trucking in English
AUTHOR: Carolyn Steele
Blog: Trucking in English
Website: Carolyn Steele
Twitter: @Trucking_Lady
Facebook: Trucking in English
FORMAT: Paperback, Ebook (Kindle)
GENRE: Memoir
SOURCE: Review copy from author

Amazon Summary:

“So here’s the plan. I’m going to train to drive a truck and go long-haul. I can get paid and maybe write a book at the same time. What do you reckon?” “Go for it Mum, how bad can it be?” This is the tale of what happens when a middle-aged mum from England decides to actually drive 18-wheelers across North America instead of just dreaming about it. From early training (when it becomes apparent that negotiating 18 wheels and 13 gears involves slightly more than just learning how to climb in) this rookie overcomes self-doubt, infuriating companions and inconsiderate weather to become a real trucker. She learns how to hit a moose correctly and how to be hijacked. She is almost arrested in Baltimore Docks and survives a terrifying winter tour of The Rockies. Nothing goes well, but that’s why there’s a book. Trucking in English began as a blog from the cab and became a popular podcast before taking book form. It is part of Carolyn’s ‘Armchair Emigration’ series.


“Why would a fifty-something, nicely brought-up mother suddenly decide to go trucking?”

Indeed. Until I read this book, I’d considered trucks to be part of the roads’ parallel universe: menacing beasts that slow you down going uphill, hurtle dangerously fast behind you downhill, or who scatter remnants of blown tires across three lanes, strategically positioned to rip open your door skins like sardine cans.

Carolyn Steele, however, has given me a glimpse inside this parallel universe, and I’ll say this: she’s braver than I’ll ever be.  If I announced to my own family my intention of learning to drive one of these shiny monsters, the reaction would be unflattering: “You?” (Cue gales of incredulous laughter.) “You can’t even reverse a Mini.”  I’m not one of Life’s natural drivers, which makes me all the more admiring of people who are, particularly “fifty-something, nicely brought-up mothers.”

Trucking in English starts at Carolyn’s pipe dream to become a truck driver:

Why not get paid to see North America? I’d driven for a living before, I’d seen little of Canada and nothing of the States, how hard could it be?

— takes us through the training period which was more demanding than she’d anticipated:

I’d assumed it was merely a matter of getting used to where the corners were and developing a technique for climbing in.

— and recounts Carolyn’s adventures once she was let loose on the road.

These long-haul expeditions across Canada and the USA are peppered with frustrations deriving from red tape (seriously — Campbell’s Chicken Soup requires a Customs’ Meat Inspection certificate before it can cross the border?) and the sexism, both unintentional and blatant, that a female truck driver will encounter.

Red-faced squaddie escorted us outside and managed not to look too confused when we [Carolyn and her male co-driver] headed for the wrong sides of our vehicle and it became horribly apparent that I was driving.

Throughout the book shines Carolyn’s good humor, frankness, and sense of the ridiculous.  The characters and events she encounters are described so vividly that they seemed as real to me as they were to her, and in such a way that I had to stifle snorts of laughter if I was reading my Kindle in a public place.

Finally, as March is Style and Beauty Month at TDN, it would be remiss of me not to share a few of Carolyn’s style tips for lady truck drivers:

1. Do not go anywhere without a large supply of baby wipes. You never know when or where your next shower will be.

2. Use a bathroom whenever you see one, even if you don’t need to. (Ever wondered what happens when truckers are taken short in the middle of nowhere during a Canadian blizzard?)

3. Most important of all — dress androgynously. Do not, under any circumstances, let other truck drivers on the road know you are a woman.

A chap in a slower truck does not like to be overtaken by a woman and some of them can get quite snippy about it…With a cap over my eyes (so long as it isn’t pink) hair tucked up into it, large sunglasses and a golf-shirt I can just about pass for anybody… I left the cap off one day due to being so hot that even my hair was sweating. Overtook a truck just south of Toledo and he tried extremely hard to run [me] off the road.

And now it’s your chance to ENTER OUR DRAW TO WIN A FREE  COPY!!!  You can either:

1) Leave a comment on this post, saying why you’d like your own copy of Trucking in English, or

2) Head across to Twitter and tweet the following:

“I want a copy of Trucking in English by Carolyn Steele: via @Trucking_Lady @DisplacedNation”

Don’t forget, you double your chances if  you’re a Displaced Dispatch subscriber!!!

The winner will be announced in our Displaced Dispatch in April.


STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s author interview!

Image: Book cover — “Trucking in English”

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5 things de Tocqueville can teach expats to US

LibertyI imagine that over the last two or so years the rapid rise of the iPad and other tablet devices has led to a decline in the use of toilet libraries, by which I mean those little collections of books many people keep in their bathrooms for those leisurely times when they have a particularly challenging movement to sit through (perhaps you have your own toilet library. Feel free to share your favorite reads in the comments below).

My own toilet library shows me to be a rather self-righteous, aspiring autodidact. Among my little pile can be found Empires of the World by Nicholas Ostler, The Oxford Book of English Poetry, and Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. The books are all left there in the rather grand belief that in the privacy of the privy I might finally learn something. That’s all gone to pot since I got an iPad as I now simply read twitter or play Football Manager on there instead. The books are, sadly, left mostly unread.

One book that should be added to the above trinity – and one that I have fitfully gone through in the last few years – is de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. When I moved to the US it seemed, unsurprising enough, a cornerstone text that I should familiarize myself with.

For those who don’t already know, Democracy in America  is a study in American society by an aristocrat from Normandy, Alexis de Tocqueville. He journeyed to America in 1831 when he was sent, along with Gustave de Beaumont, to look into the American penal system, although natural curiosity led to both men investigating a lot more than just prisons.

Book II of Democracy in America, in particular, can move me away from reading twitter and reading an actual book. Its short chapters mark it as perfect for inclusion in any toilet library, and it is extremely perceptive into America and Americans. With that in mind, here’s 5 thing that de Tocqueville can teach expats to the US

Warning: de Tocqueville scholars should look away now. No insightful analysis will be found here.

5. An outsider can bring an interesting perspective to US society

Yesterday two of my least favorite people met on CNN, Piers Morgan and Alex Jones (what incidentally is the collective noun for gits?). Jones, a conspiracy theorist firebrand, was behind the recent campaign to have Piers Morgan in light of his views on gun control. Jones screamed “1776!” over and over again at Morgan as well as calling him a “redcoat”. Morgan’s views on gun control aren’t particularly out-of-the-ordinary within the mainstream media, but his foreignness means that, for some, it is doubly offensive when he attacks a text (the second amendment) that they consider sacrosanct.

Morgan clearly is not a modern de Tocqueville, but it is worth remembering that your own outsider status allows you to see US society with fresh eyes and that you can, respectfully and tactfully, challenge certain assumptions.

4. Regardless of how irritating it is when misused, theoretically American exceptionalism is a fascinating, even wonderful, thing.

Most non-Americans understandably roll their eyes when US politicians, particularly when seeking election, proclaim the US as the greatest country in the world, a country unlike any other that is innately superior. That most US political rallies don’t end with a rousing chorus of “America, f#@k yeah!” from Team America is surprising.

However, the first person to describe America as exceptional was de Tocqueville, and in his writings you’ll find that there is much talk of America as a democratic society as opposed to those Monarchic, aristocratic societies of the Old World. It serves as a reminder that America, for all its faults, is founded upon impressive ideals. The main idea underpinning exceptionalism is not American superiority, but that it is qualitatively different from other nations, the first to build an identity based upon its independence. We can certainly debate that this exceptionalism is no longer the case, but in de Tocqueville’s period I do not think it a contentious claim – indeed, it’s an exciting and invigorating thought.

3. Cynicism need not be the default mode for the Western European dealing with America.

It’s easy to be weary when dealing with American life and Americans. They can be unabashed, earnest, loud. The default mode, of which I am very much guilty of, is to mock and sneer and snark about many aspects of American life. The phrase “only in America” is often invoked for some of the worst aspects of American life, de Tocqueville shows that “only in America” can also be positive.

2. “Never mind the quality, feel the length.” A reminder of the sheer size of America.

The America that6 de Tocqueville visited is half the size that the country is now. But the America of the 1830s was a still a vast land and Democracy in America is, in its own dry way, a travelogue to a new land of strange sights. New expats to the US would do well to remember that they don’t just have a country to discover, but a continent.

1. The gift that keeps giving.

The first thing that you many notice about Democracy in America is that it is a hefty tome. For those expats blogging about life in US, you need never worry that you’ll be short of material. The US really is the gift that keeps giving. Look at dear departed Alistair Cooke, he managed to keep ploughing this particular field for over 60 years. You may never fully understand this country, but you can have an interesting time coming to terms with it.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post on reads to tickle the expat’s imagination and intellect.

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Image: Awindram

Calling expats from all countries — it’s not too late to vote!

Unless you’ve gone into early hibernation for the winter, you’re probably aware that there’s a presidential election going on today in the United States. If you’re not an American citizen, of course, this election is merely a spectator sport for you, as Americans exercise their hard-fought right to vote by passing out in 2-hour queues in West Palm Beach, or stabbing ineffectually at a voting machine with a political mind of its own.

Given the difficulties of voting within the country, you’d think the ease of voting from abroad — via mail, fax, or even email — would ensure full electoral participation from expats. Statistics from the 2008 election, however, suggest otherwise.

Election apathy?

According to the Overseas Vote Foundation, a mere 7% of overseas voters took part in the election four years ago. In other words, a teenager or high school dropout is more likely to cast a vote than an expat is.

“Why?” is an interesting question, and one that doesn’t seem to have been investigated.

At a guess, your average expat is already staggering under the weight of red tape and bureaucracy, and a voting form is that piece of paper that breaks the expat’s in-tray. It’s the piece of paper that turns up four months later during a home office blitz, under a pile of credit card offers, with a Post-It attached saying “Don’t Forget!”

Or perhaps, living outside the home country for a length of time has initiated a feeling of detachment. A feeling that it doesn’t really matter what you think because you’re not there.

Or a misguided conscience kicks in, whispering that you, living abroad, are making a decision that affects others more than it affects you.

Expats: The other “swing state”

Although the exact number of Americans abroad is a little hazy — the State Department estimates just over 6 million, whereas the non-profit American Citizens Abroad puts the figure at 5.2 million — US expats equal the population of Missouri or Colorado, depending on which figure you believe.

Either way, it’s enough to make a significant difference in the outcome of an election, if they all voted.

Take our poll!

So, to all expats of all nationalities: how do you feel about voting in your home- and adopted countries’ elections? Are just overseas Americans lethargic about their civic duties, or do all expats feel the same?

Take our poll!

Our voting booths are open 24/7 for the next 30 days!

Stay tuned for Wednesday’s post, in which American repats Sezin Koehler and Anastasia Ashman reflect upon their first stateside election in quite a while.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe for email delivery of The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of the week’s posts from The Displaced Nation. Sign up for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Image: MorgueFile

Expats, do you play with your identities? Are you an imposter or a chameleon?

Pretending to be a dead child is the cruelest trick you could play on a family.

Insinuating yourself into their lives, claiming falsely the intimacy and bonds that only exists between immediate family — mother and son; brother and sister — and to convince them that that son, that brother, that they feared murdered, has returned. There was, it transpires, nothing to worry about all along. You were fine. You are alive.

To succeed in such a deception scarcely seems possible. It sounds like the plot of a mystery novel, but it is, in fact, chillingly true. We have ourselves a real-life Talented Mr Ripley.

This post is concerned with the case of Frédéric Bourdin, a 23-year-old brown-eyed Frenchman who convinced a Texan family, the Barclays, that he was Nicholas, their missing blue-eyed teenage son and brother.

A conman, a fantasist, a sociopath, Bourdin already had a history of impersonating destitute children when in 1997 he convinced authorities in France and the US that he was the unruly child who at aged thirteen had disappeared from the Barclay family in San Antonio, Texas. The police presumed Nicholas was dead until Bourdin concocted a tale that the child had been snatched by a pedophile ring and brought to Europe. Bourdin lived with the Barclay family for three months before a private investigator revealed the truth.

With the release of the documentary film, The Imposter, directed by Bart Layton, the story of Bourdin has returned to the news. The film, a success at Sundance, is now in limited release in the US. Bourdin’s masquerade is so hard to believe, and so stranger than fiction, that it is of little surprise that is perfect material for a documentary.

This is not, however, the first time that the story of Bourdin has been depicted on the cinema screens. In 2010 a fictionalized account entitled The Chameleon was released, directed by Jean-Paul Salomé.

To be honest, The Chameleon is a disappointing film that despite being based on the most compelling of true-life tales is never itself compelling. (For anyone in the US who might be interested, it is available for streaming on Netflix.)

A better use of your time may be spent reading about Bourdin in David Grann’s essay “The Chameleon,” which belongs to his essay collection The Devil & Sherlock Holmes. This is where I first came across the story. The essay is actually available on The New Yorker Web site and I can’t recommend it enough.

Why, however, have we chosen this topic for The Displaced Nation? Well, we think that The Imposter is a film that you may be fascinated by, but we also think that there’s something about Bourdin’s tale, undeniably horrific and callous as it, that resonates with an expat audience. How did this man with his French accent convince others that he was an American teenager? In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, Bourdin stated that there was an unspoken collusion on the part of Nicholas Barclay’s mother, Beverly Dollarhide — that she knew damn well that this was not her son:

Most people who go to church don’t believe in God, very few of them really believe, but somewhere deep inside they try to convince themselves there is a God. It’s the same thing for the Dollarhide family. It happened exactly the same way.

Bourdin throughout his life has cruelly taken playing roles to an extremity. Despite being jailed for identity fraud after it is was revealed that he was not Nicholas Barclay, he continued to pass himself off as teenagers. In 2004 he claimed to be a Spanish adolescent whose mother had been killed in that year’s Madrid train bombings. The next year he again pretended to be a Spanish orphan, this time claiming that he lost his parents in a car accident.

While none of us play roles to that extent, this imposter and chameleon aspect of Bourdain’s personality is — though I am aware that I over-reaching here somewhat to make a point — reflected in many of our lives as expats.

I know that I find myself occupying roles I had previously not thought I would before. Sometimes I am the imposter. I play a role that isn’t me. In my case, it may be exaggerating national characteristics and language that I feel people expect of me, but that I would never use back home. At other times, I find myself trying to be the chameleon. Trying to scrub away my otherness so that no attention is drawn to me because I sound different, or behave differently.

What about you? What sort of an expat do you find yourself to be. In your adopted home, do you find yourself, at time, to be a chameleon? Or are you more an imposter?

STAY TUNED for Tuesday’s post, a list of travel situations that spell H-O-R-R-O-R!

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Image: MorgueFile 

BOOK REVIEW: “The Elopement: A Memoir” by Dipika Kohli

TITLE: The Elopement
AUTHOR: Dipika Kohli
Twitter: @DipikaKohli
Kismuth on Facebook
FORMAT: Ebook (Kindle) available from Amazon
GENRE: Memoir
SOURCE: Review copy from author

Author Bio:

A former journalist, raised in America by her Indian parents, Dipika Kohli has previously lived in Japan and Ireland, and now lives in Durham, NC, with her husband and son. The third volume in her Kismuth series will be published in October 2012.


When American-born Karin Malhotra elopes to Ireland with her college sweetheart, she botches the dreams her parents had for her when they left New Delhi with a stalwart philosophy on what a good life “ought” to be. “Opportunity,” her father said, “is in the U.S. That’s why we came.”

But finding herself in Ireland, juxtaposed in not one, but two additional cultures (her new husband is Japanese), Karin finds herself thinking about the early years of her own parents’ married lives, and wondering if, like her, they questioned their decision to leave everything familiar for the mere promise of a better life.

She tumbles headlong without any preparation into a small village in the corner of Ireland. Not only does she have to contend with a new suite of social mores, she wonders what it would have been like had she not quit home.

(Source: book description)


The Elopement is the second book in a four-part memoir series, Kismuth, which, in Hindi, means “destiny”. Karin’s grandmother defined destiny as:

We’re all meant to be someplace…And when we get there, wherever it is, that’s what’s supposed to happen.

This implies a passiveness about the process, a casting off of responsibility for our futures, yet many would argue that destiny is of our own making. You reap what you sow, is another way of putting it.

Karin Malhotra’s ambitious parents left Delhi in search for a new life, for better opportunities for them and their children. Sadly, by forcing their own ambitions onto Karin, they sowed what they would later reap: an unhappy daughter, rejecting her family’s strict expectations by following her heart and searching for her own “better opportunities”. Her interpretation of the phrase, unfortunately, did not agree with that of her parents, who refused even to acknowledge Karin’s relationship with Japanese boyfriend Yoshi.

Little wonder that, when Karin finds the acceptance from Yoshi’s parents that she never had from her own, elopement seems an attractive, fairytale-like option. But of course, everyone knows that not all fairytales have happy endings. And while it might be possible to create one’s own destiny, the lesson we can learn from this book is that it is folly to try to create someone else’s.

The Elopement is a fascinating read, beautifully and eloquently written. Dipika Kohli’s next book, The Dive, starts where The Elopement ends. I am already counting the days until its publication on October 10.

Notable quotes:

On being a TCK:

[My parents’] choices, and the consequences that arose, ought not affect my own. If they didn’t think the trade was worth it — the one where they gave up everything in a familiar context in India to take a chance on a new opportunity abroad — well, that wasn’t my problem, was it?

On interculteral relationships:

Our summer of trying out…this intercultural relationship thing, felt like wearing a happened-upon outfit I’d never imagined could fit, but thought, once in a while, why not break that one out? …This “once in a while” was about to become my new look.

On Ireland:

Ireland had the kinds of places and people that would make you stop what you were doing, and sit up and pay full attention, to the degree that you felt really aware and present, maybe for the first time in your life.


STAY TUNED for Thursday’s post!

Image: Book cover – “The Elopement”

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Some like it boiled: When it’s hot outside, go somewhere even hotter for vacation!

“Have a good summer!” The doctor’s receptionist hands me my receipt. “Are you going away?”

“Yes, to Florida,” I say. (Wait for it, wait for it…)

“Florida?” she screeches. In August?”

Bring quickly to the boil…

That old saying, the one about only mad dogs and Englishmen going out in the midday sun, apparently has a Northeast American variation: Only mad dogs and Englishmen go south to the midsummer sun.

On the face of it, it makes sense. Why bother to fly south when the mercury is already at 90 degrees in New England, as it has been for much of this summer?

That’s all well and good, but no one questions your sanity in winter, when you announce you’re leaving the cold February gloom to find even colder weather in which to ski. If anyone did question it, the reasoning would be: “But the snow’s better in Colorado/Italy/Switzerland!”

Simmer for 7 days…

Well — she said defiantly —  in summer, the sun and palm trees are better in Florida. Or Aruba. Or the Cayman Islands. While I love the maple and oak trees of New England in the Fall, they don’t look right amid tropical temperatures. It’s like lying on a sun lounger on an expanse of white sand, waiting for a margarita, and the waiter bringing you a cup of tomato soup instead. It’s just wrong.

“A-ha!” someone is bound to say. “But what about the hurricanes?”

True enough. Tropical Storm Isaac is right now barreling its way toward the Gulf Coast, where it is expected to reach hurricane strength. Yet the Northeast is not immune to summer storms, either. Exactly one year ago, Hurricane Irene arrived in Connecticut, downing trees and knocking out power for days. Two months later, the same thing happened again, but this time with a snowstorm called Alfred.

Now, you don’t see that very often in the Keys.

Remove from the heat…

The people who shun the roasting climes in summer prefer to go south in the colder months, and that’s fair enough. As I said in a post last Christmas, I would love to spend December 25 in a desert-island-like setting (albeit with room service.) That, however, means going farther south than good old Florida. I’ve had friends do the Disney water rides at Thanksgiving and come back home with streaming colds to prove it.

Thank you, but I’ll pass on that particular souvenir.

…And serve in July.

Perhaps this perverse determination to find somewhere hotter than my home climate stems from my nationality. I am from the country whose residents flee for two weeks every year in search of the summer that nearly always evades England.  Perhaps I am genetically programmed to be suspicious of summer’s consistency in my place of residence, imagining that it can only be guaranteed a few thousand miles nearer the equator.

The only solution to this state of suspicion and dissatisfaction, as I see it, is to move there permanently. Perhaps it would have its drawbacks: people who move to Florida or the Caribbean often say they “miss the seasons.”

Me, though, I would happily give some seasons a miss.


STAY TUNED for Tuesday’s post, in which Tony James Slater tells us what it’s like to be an expat writer!

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Image: MorgueFile

BOOK REVIEW: “Expat Life Slice By Slice” by Apple Gidley

TITLE: Expat Life Slice by Slice
AUTHOR: Apple Gidley
Twitter: @ExpatApple
PUBLICATION DATE: March 2012 (Summertime Publishers)
FORMAT: Ebook (Kindle) and Paperback, available from Amazon
GENRE: Memoir
SOURCE: Review copy from author

Author Bio:

Apple Gidley became an expat at the tender age of one month old, in Kano, Nigeria. Since her early initiation into global wandering, she has relocated 26 times through 12 countries, acquiring a husband and two children en route.

Apple is known to thousands as ExpatApple, through her popular blog at the Daily Telegraph.


“From marauding monkeys to strange men in her bedroom, from Africa to Australasia to America, with stops in Melanesia, the Caribbean and Europe along the way, Apple Gidley vividly sketches her itinerant global life. The challenges of expatriation, whether finding a home, a job, or a school are faced mostly with equanimity. Touched with humour and pathos, places come alive with stories of people met and cultures learned, with a few foreign faux pas added to the mix.”

(Source: book description)


If anyone is qualified to issue advice on expat life, Apple Gidley is that person. Born to an English father and Australian mother, she takes the label “Serial Expat” to new heights.  She was a TCK before the term was invented (instead classed unflatteringly as an “expat brat”) and continued the global wandering throughout her adult life, with 26 relocations through 12 countries to date.

Her memoir provides fascinating reading, about places and lifestyles that most of us will never experience, and at times is almost anachronistic:  reading her reminiscences about servants, voluntary work, and charity committees, there’s a time warp sensation of stepping into a Somerset Maugham short story.

Although the book is a record of Apple’s patchwork life, most expats will relate to the emotional experiences she describes, no matter where in the world they are or  how many countries they’ve lived in. For example, we worry that leaving our family and friends behind will increase the emotional distance as well as the physical. After a while, we realise that this is mostly not the case, and that those who allow physical distance to become an obstacle weren’t so emotionally close in the first place. In Chapter 8, “Eighth Slice: Staying Connected”, she says:

As we age we draw closer still. We believe in family but do not see each other for years at a time, and yet we are all aware of where each of us is in the world, still scattered and testaments to a global upbringing.

In “Ninth Slice: Death at a Distance”, Apple deals with the elephant-in-the-room topic: the illness or death of a family member while we are thousands of miles away. During such times, it’s easy to beat ourselves up for choosing a nomadic lifestyle;  if our associated guilt trips were eligible for air miles, we could afford to fly back and forth to be with our loved ones as often as we wanted. In describing her own experiences of bereavement, Apple’s practical, matter-of-fact approach, plus her insights gleaned from other cultures’ attitudes to old age and death, reminds us that the old cliché of “life goes on” holds true, even after “death at a distance”.

Whether you’re a veteran expat, a re-pat, or are just about to embark upon your first move to another country, “Expat Life Slice By Slice” should be on your reading list.

Words of wisdom:

On TCKs:

For those children brought up as TCKs…a nonjudgmental and accepting attitude to different customs, colours and cultures is the norm. As this demographic grows, let’s hope for an even greater understanding of cultural differences for all our children.

On voluntary work:

Volunteering is work, sometimes harder than a paid position because it is the cause keeping you there and not the salary.

On making new connections:

Picking up people around the world to share your life with is one of the greatest pleasures in life, and sometimes you know straight away they will continue to stay in it.

On “Home”

Home is with me wherever I go…It is not a single building or a single country, but many of them.


STAY TUNED for Wednesday’s post.

Image:  Book cover – “Expat Life Slice By Slice”

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EXPAT MOMENTS: Unravelling the enigma of American fireworks booths

Another post in our series focusing on little moments or images of expat experience.

Like a fungal spore, they appeared unannounced one morning about four weeks ago. Every parking lot in town had one — a single compact wooden booth covered in brightly colored posters.

Inside each of these booth, sweating in the summer heat, sat a vendor surrounded by merchandise – box upon box of fireworks. The vendor lists off the inventory, the names sounding more like dive-bar cocktails than pyrotechnics: Shagadellic Mojos; Fiery Frogs; Round Red Dahlias; Falcons Rising; Dragons’s Tears.

Over the next few weeks, I learn two things about these booths. First, that each booth has been set up by local group, that depending which booth you choose you are, in fact, deciding which school or church or local charity you want to help raise funds for. I calculate that there must be around 200 of these booths around town. That is a lot of local groups and non-profits and yet my response is an apathetic one, the response of a man who feels untethered to this community, who has no cause here he wants to endorse and support. The second thing I learn, from those who cast me a conspiratorial glance, is that I don’t want to waste my time with these booths. They know a man. He has “stuff” from Mexico. It’ll blow your mind, and possibly your arm — Shagadellic Mojos these ain’t.

And then, a week or so after July 4th and just as quickly as they appeared, one morning you wake and the booths have gone. 

STAY TUNED for next Monday’s post – a round up of Olympics books.

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