The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

Tag Archives: Valentine

A valentine to kindred creative spirits encountered in far-away lands

Expat life has a transient quality that is not always conducive to making close friends. Thus when two people reach out and find a connection, it feels very special, as we learn from this guest post by Philippa Ramsden, a Scottish writer who until recently was living in Burma/Myanmar. Philippa has been on our site before. Her story about discovering she had breast cancer shortly after her arrival in Rangoon/Yangon was one of the dragonfruit “morsels” that Shannon Young, who contributes our Diary of an Expat Writer column, chose to share with the release of an anthology she edited in 2014, How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in Asia. I must say, it is a pleasure to have Philippa back in our midst. Not only is she doing much better health-wise, but her story of friendship makes a perfect read for Valentine’s Day! —ML Awanohara

As I was eating my breakfast quietly this morning, in this peaceful retreat, I was joined at the table by another couple. We started chatting a little, enthusiastic about the day ahead and our various plans for exploring, relaxing and creating.

That’s when I saw the plate of dragonfruit in front of them! I hadn’t seen dragonfruit since leaving Asia, I did not even know it grew in South America*.

It was a striking coincidence given the special place dragonfruit holds in my creative heart. The first time I had my writing published in a proper book was when it appeared in the How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? anthology, which came out in 2014. What’s more, something unexpected emerged from the process of refining the writing in preparation for publication, which ultimately led to my present surroundings.

* * *

We were a team of 27 women, including and guided by our editor, Shannon Young, towards producing a collection of stories from our lives as women in Asia. Stories of our lives in countries where we were essentially guests, for a shorter or longer term. From a dozen different countries, we varied enormously in our situations but were tied together by the fact that we were all, or had been, women living in Asia as expatriates.

It was fascinating to get to know each other through our stories and through email connection as we were kept up to date on the decision of the title, the reveal of the cover art and the lead-up to publication.

Just after my writer’s copy of the anthology arrived, I received an email from one of the other writers, Sharon Brown. She had read my account of moving to Myanmar and being diagnosed with cancer. I, meanwhile, had read her story, “Our Little Piece of Vietnam,” in which she recounted hurtling through the streets of Hanoi on the back of a motorbike while being in the throes of labor, reaching the hospital just in time for the (safe) arrival of her daughter.

Sharon had reached out to me because she and her family were moving to Yangon!

“Once we’re settled in, if you have time, I would love to meet with you for tea one day,” her email said.

And indeed we did. Just think, had it not been for our Dragonfruit connection, it is highly unlikely that our paths would have crossed in Myanmar over the two years of their stay. We would not have enjoyed those cuppas and chats, writing together or being part of the same book club.

A wonderful connection, thanks to the Dragonfruit anthology.


Fast forward two years, to May 2016. As it turned out, Sharon and I were both preparing to leave Myanmar. I was packing to leave Asia for Africa, and I learned that she was leaving Asia for South America: Ecuador. Along with her husband, she was embracing the opportunity to take on a new challenge. They would be running an eco-lodge in Ecuador, something close to their hearts, values and beliefs. They were filled with enthusiasm and zest for their new adventure.

Sharon said:

“You should come to the lodge. It would be the perfect place for a writing retreat. Do come.”

What a fascinating thought—but hardly a likely venture. Ecuador is further west than I have ever travelled. It is more than a day’s travel from Africa. Would it be rash to travel such a distance when the year has already seen such intensity, change and indeed long-distance travel? Would it not be wasteful given that there is so much to explore on my new African doorstep?

These are sensible questions, but my mind is not so wise. The thought kept returning that this is an opportunity which might not arise again. That it is probably better to travel when health is reasonable as nothing can be taken for granted. And the sneaking reminder, that if I did visit Ecuador, then incredibly, this would be a year which would see me on no less than five continents. (I do believe that I have not travelled to more than two continents in any year in the past.) How many grandmothers are able to do that?

* * *

So here I am, in the beautiful La Casa Verde Eco Guest House, nestling in the hills of Ecuador. I am sitting on the balcony of what is now being called “The Writing Room”, tapping away at the keyboard with the steep green hills right in front of me, the sound of a donkey braying in the distance, the trees swaying in the breeze and in the company of blue grey tanagers. The creative silence of the past months is being lifted gently in these inspiring hills.

I could not resist the temptation of visiting such a new part of the world to me, and of bringing the year to a close in a peaceful and inspiring place.

Had it not been for our Dragonfruit connection, I might never have made it to this fascinating new land. Serendipity and the friendship of a kindred spirit have enabled this retreat to happen.

Like so many journeys, the one to get here was not an easy one, but I am powerfully reminded of the importance of making that effort and seizing the day. These opportunities are to be embraced and treasured. And will surely be long remembered.

Thank you, Dragonfruit!

Editor’s note: In fact, dragonfruit, or pitaya, is native to the Americas.


* * *

And thank YOU, Philippa, for such an uplifting story! Displaced Nationers, do you have any stories of friendships that blossomed because of creative pursuits, and if so, did they lead you to new parts of the world? Do tell in the comments.

And if this excerpt has made you curious to about Philippa Ramsden, her blog is Feisty Blue Gecko, where a version of this post first appeared. You can also find her on Facebook and twitter. She has written several meditations on the challenges and joys of life in a foreign environment—and they are all fascinating. She is currently working on a memoir.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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

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Photo credits:
Opening visual: (clockwise, from top left) Dragonfruit anthology cover art; the photos of schoolgirls in Baños, Ecuador (where the eco-lodge is), of the two young women in a field in Myanmar, and the two kinds of dragonfruit are all from Pixabay.
Second visual: The photos of the cups of tea and of the two women making a heart with their hands are both from Pixabay. Image on the left: Inside The Strand Hotel & some of their gift shops – Rangoon, Myanmar (Burma), by Kathy via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); image on right: downtown Rangoon with Sule Pagoda in distance, supplied by Philippa Ramsden.
Last visual: The photos of the green hills of Ecuador and the eco-lodge balcony view were supplied by Philippa; the photo of the blue grey tanagers is from Pixabay; and the rainbow image should be attributed as: Ecuador, over the rainbow, Baños, by Rinaldo Wurglitsch via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

CAPITAL IDEA: Singapore: A quick guide

Welcome to another “Capital Ideas” – our somewhat idiosyncratic, ever so slightly tongue-in-cheek guide to various world cities, perfect for the ever discerning readership of this blog. We know our readers are always visitors, never tourists (an important distinction).

Do feel free to contribute your own ideas or suggestions in the comments section, we’d love to hear your thoughts, too.

Capital: Singapore.

Wait a moment, isn’t that an island? Well, it’s actually made up of 63 islands, but Singapore is, in fact, a city state.

Like the Vatican? There’s fewer Cardinals, but yes, the Vatican is an example of another city state.

All I know about Singapore is that chewing gum is illegal. As a confessed chewing gum addict, I think I’ll have to pass on this one. Some forms of therapeutic gum is allowed.

So I can get hold of gum? If a doctor or dentist sells it to you for health purposes, then yes.

What else is banned? Candy? No, in fact, when I was last there I noticed that Singapore immigration put out bowls of hard candy as you went through passport control.

That’s definitely preferable than dealing with Homeland Security.Isn’t it?

This still isn’t quite explaining why I should visit. Well, being a well developed, self-contained city state, it’s easy to get a sense of Singapore quickly and it’s easy to get around.

So I should go because it’s convenient? No . . . Well. . . Yes, I suppose it is. Everything is easy and doable. You won’t have aggressive taxi drivers trying to trick you over fares as you leave the airport. It’s a very well-run state. That’s interesting to see, and it means some of the more stressful elements of travelling, aren’t such a problem here.

Wouldn’t that be primarily due to Singapore’s soft authoratinism? Hey, I thought you only knew about the gum?

I’m smarter than I look. Considering your looks, that’s not too difficult, but to answer your earlier question, yes, Singapore’s laws can be draconian at times, and it’s these laws that make it, on the surface, a well-run state that you’ll feel very safe in for the duration of your visit.

What else do I need to know? Well, being a financial and business center for the region means that there’s a large number of European, American, and Australian expat communities in Singapore. 40% of Singapore’s residents are foreigners. Accordingly, no matter where you’re from, you’ll find something or someone to remind you of home. What’s also useful to remember is that English is one of Singapore’s four official languages. Don’t assume that that means that everyone speak it, but a large number of Singaporeans do, which does make it a more convenient destination in terms of being understood than most other Asian destinations.

Will I be able to understand Singlish? You’ll have better luck understanding a drunk tramp screaming at you on Sauchiehall street. The Singapore government strongly discourages Singlish, but personally we find it charming and a rich part of Singapore’s identity.

Okay, so if I do decide to go, what should I do there? If you’re with young children then you need to make a visit to the Singapore zoo? They do an amazing night safari.

Really? The zoo? I was expecting an answer a little more imaginative than that. It is a nice zoo, though. You can also visit the botanical gardens that houses one of the world’s largest orchid collections.

Orchids? Don’t mock. You can see an orchid dedicated to Princess Di AND one dedicated to Margaret Thatcher.

Umm. . .sounds thrilling. The must-do is checking-out Orchard Road.

What’s that? It’s the main road through Singapore. It’s the social epicenter where people come to…and forgive me for using this phrase…shop til they drop.

Are they that into shopping in Singapore? Yes. Orchard road isn’t shop after shop, it’s high-end mall after high-end mall. It needs to be seen to be believed. For a not quite so high-end retail experience, but just as fascinating, visit the Mustafa Centre in Little India. You’ll be able to find anything in this department

I thought this site had cultural pretensions. All I’m hearing about is shopping, zoos, and flowers dedicated to Maggie bloody Thatcher. One of our favorite museums can be found in Singapore.

What would that be? The National Museum of Singapore. They really do an excellent job of presenting the island’s history. It will you a marvellous grounding in the Singapore. Once you’ve finished there you can head over to Raffles for a Singapore Sling.

Wasn’t Raffles a gentleman thief? You’re thinking of a different chap. This Raffles, is Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles a member of the East India Company who founded the city of Singapore. The Raffles Hotel is named after him. It’s an ornate colonial hotel that is worth a visit. It was also here that the cocktail the Singapore Sling was invented.

What’s in it? Gin, Cherry Heering, Bénédictine, and fresh pineapple juice. It’s a very attractive pink color. Drink it in the Long Bar. Bowls of peanuts are also provided in the bar, you’re expected – nay encouraged – to throw the peanut shells on the bar floor. It’s the only place in Singapore you’re allowed to litter. The Long Bar was a favoured hang-out of Ernest Emmingway and Somerset Maugham.

What other food should I try? Kaya toast is my favorite. Kaya is a fruit curd made from coconut and sugar, spread it on hot buttered toast and at with a runny, soft-boiled egg – it’s heaven. Also, if anything is made with pandan – be it bread or cakes – then gobble it down. Pandanus leaves make the most mundane item delicious. You should also go to Clarke Quay to try Chilli Crab, and Little India for some Fish Head Curry.

Fish Head Curry? Sounds gross. It’s an experience, and one I didn’t find unpleasant, though I don’t think I’d want to make a habit of it. The eyes are the best bit.

Should I eat durian? I would say, yes. It’s an experience, you should try it.

What’s it like? Initially, it tastes rather pleasant. There’s a creamy custard taste. It’s the second taste that may make you retch. I’d describe that second taste as being a mix of raw onions, halitosis, and burnt dog hair. In my experience, you may want to try it first as an ice cream flavor before you build up to the real deal.

What should I read? For fiction, A Many-Splendoured Thing by Han Suyin, King Rat by James Cavell, and Far Eastern Tales by Somerset Maugham. For history, try A history of Singapore, 1819-1988 by C.M. Turnbull.

Thanks, I’m off to try and find some durian ice cream. I’ve had garlic ice cream, can it be any worse? Careful what you wish for.

STAY TUNED for a new Displaced Nation post tomorrow.

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Image: MorgueFile

CAPITAL IDEA: Paris: A quick guide

Welcome to another “Capital Ideas” – our somewhat idiosyncratic, ever so slightly tongue-in-cheek guide to various world cities, perfect for the ever discerning readership of this blog. We know our readers are always visitors, never tourists (an important distinction). As it’s Valentine’s Day we thought it only right to take a look at the world capital of romance – Paris (not very original — ed.).

Do feel free to contribute your own ideas or suggestions in the comments section, we’d love to hear your thoughts, too.

Capital: Paris

Paris, Texas? Um, no.

Don’t be too quick to judge. I hear it’s lovely. I’m sure it is. I liked the movie, if that helps.

Not really. So I guess you’re this is all about the other Paris — the city of love? That’s the one.

Ahh, so this is an easy Valentine’s Day tie-in post? I’m disappointed. Could you have not gone with something a little more left-field for a romantic destination? Such as?

I dunno. Cardiff? Sacramento? Sometimes it’s best to stick with the tried and tested.

Why should I go? I think the British expat writer Lawrence Durrell put it well when he wrote the following about Paris:

The national characteristics … the restless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness of good living and the passionate individualism. This is the invisible constant in a place with which the ordinary tourist can get in touch just by sitting quite quietly over a glass of wine in a Paris bistro.

But I heard Paris can send a man mad. You’re probably thinking about the likes of Toulouse-Lautrec and the perils of consuming too much absinthe.

No, I mean modern-day tourists. Ah, then you’re probably thinking about Paris Syndrome; it is, in the words of Wikipedia, a transient psychological disorder encountered by some individuals (primarily Japanese tourists) when they visit Paris. It is characterized by a number of psychiatric symptoms such as acute delusional states, hallucinations, feelings of persecution (perceptions of being a victim of prejudice, aggression, or hostility from others), derealization, depersonalization, anxiety, and also psychosomatic manifestations such as dizziness, tachycardia, sweating, and others.

Sounds weird. It is. One of the contributing factors is that many Japanese visitors have an idealized image of Paris as the city of romance and sophistication and trying to reconcile that image with the rude and noisy metropolis they instead encounter is simply overwhelming.

Um, so you’ve written a guide extolling me to go to Paris as it’s Valentine’s Day and Paris is the city of romance and at the very same time you’re also telling me if I go with that expectation I could break down with a psychological disorder? Amazing. You know this would never happen in Sacramento. True, they are no reported cases of Paris Syndrome affecting visitors to Sacramento.

Well, if I go — and I manage not to break down with a psychological disorder — what should I do? The obvious tourist checklist is taking a walk along the Seine, having a wander around Montmartre, making a visit to Notre Dame, climbing the Eiffel Tower, and catching an unsatisfactory glance of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre.

But I thought this site (and this nascent series) prided itself on shying away from the obvious? We do, we do. If you’re looking to uncover the “hidden” Paris you can take that suggestion literally and go to the Catacombs.

I see what you did there. Merci beaucoup! Catacombes de Paris were built following the removal and evacuation of the Saints Innocents Cemetery (Cimetière des Innocents) in the late 18th century as the medieval cemetery was no longer sanitary and was considered the cause of numerous infections in the area. On a related note, you may want to read Pure (2011), by the somewhat displaced English novelist Andrew Miller — about the breaking up of the cemetery.

Thanks for that, but can we move onto a different topic? I don’t think visiting catacombs is a particularly romantic move on my part. Do you have any romantic suggestions? I know a couple who spent the weekend trying to find the best macaroons in the city. If you’ve got a sweet tooth, you may want to give that a try. Laudree is famous for theirs — in fact, they claim to have invented them, so you may want to start there. Another macaroon purveyor definitely worth trying is Pierre Herme. Indeed you’ll do well to resist eating all their pastries and sweets.

You’re going to try and convince me to go on a guided walk, aren’t you? You seem obsessed with them. I do think walking around a city rather than hopping from metro to taxi is a better way of getting to grips with a city, and if you can do that with a knowledgeable guide, so much the better. I’ve heard good things about Paris Walks, so you may want to give them a try. Alternatively, we are living in the age of smart phones. If you don’t want to be with a tourist crowd (and I totally understand why that may be the case), then why not download a walking tour direct to your phone? Invisible Paris offers three walking tours for you to download that are absolutely free. The walks highlight aspects of the city that other guides ignore.

What’s a must-do? Embrace the cliche and go for an evening stroll along the Seine.

Is it easy to get around? Yes, the Metro system makes getting round the city easy. As a visitor it’s well worth purchasing a Paris Visite Pass, which allows you access to all of the city’s public transport

And where’s good to eat? Any recommendations? It’s Paris. You won’t struggle for decent places to eat. You know the drill when it comes to avoiding tourist traps.

What should I read? If you want to brush up on Paris, then you may want to give Graham Robb‘s Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris (2010) a try. Also worth a look for the befuddled foreigner trying to make sense of the city is The Sweet Life in Paris, by displaced American food writer David Lebovitz — it tells the story of his move to Paris. For a solid historical overview of France’s capital city, try The Seven Ages of Paris (2002), by British historian and TCK Alistair Horne. And for a work of fiction sometimes the obvious is the most appropriate — and that’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (Notre-Dame de Paris, “Our Lady of Paris”), by Victor Hugo.

What should I watch? You can go all New Wave cool and watch The 400 Blows (1959, dir. François Truffaut), Breathless (1960, dir. by Jean-Luc Godard), or Bande à part (1964, also dir. by Jean-Luc Godard). The antithesis of these is the Old Hollywood glamor of An American in Paris (1951, dir. Vincente Minnelli). Of course, what I’d really advise you to watch is one of my all-time-favourite movies — Les Enfants du Paradis (1945, dir. Marcel Carné). In fact, as it’s Valentine’s Day today, watch it tonight!

But I have reservations at the Sizzler tonight! The Sizzler?

Hey, it’s Valentine’s. I thought, why not splurge? Hmmm, maybe Paris isn’t right for you after all.

STAY TUNED for a new Displaced Nation post on Monday.

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!

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