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For this former flight attendant turned free-spirited solo adventurer, a picture says…

Svetlana Portrait Collage

Canon zoom lens, photo credit: Morguefiles; portrait of Svetlana Baghawan taken at Golestan Palace, Tehran, Iran.

Welcome to our monthly series “A picture says…”, created to celebrate expats and other global residents for whom photography is a creative outlet. The series host is English expat, blogger, writer, world traveler and photography enthusiast James King, who thinks of a camera as a mirror with memory. If you like what you see here, be sure to check out his blog, Jamoroki.

My guest this month is 33-year-old Svetlana Baghawan, who says she is a “cloud gypsy” or “maverick bird” (that’s what she calls her blog) because she likes to fly and explore—she also hikes, treks and daydreams. On her blog’s Home Page, Svetlana declares:

“When I’m not traveling physically my mind wanders in loops and whirls across open space.”

Born and raised in India, Svetlana is a mother and writer as well traveller. She also describes herself as a compulsive shopper, foodie, bad cook (her words) and animal lover. She likes to travel solo across continents, sometimes completely alone, often with her five-year-old daughter in tow. Having worked as a flight attendant for quite a few years, she was bitten by the travel bug early, and for good.

The way she described the self-portrait she sent to me for “A Picture Says…” (see above) helped set the scene for my interview with her:

By the time I left Tehran, I was a far cry from the shaky, nervous girl who had landed there two weeks before. The photo (above) was taken by the Tehran moral policeman who pulled me up for wearing tight jeans. When I told him I was from India, he revealed a fascination for Bollywood and I glibly lied about being a professional Bollywood dancer. He happily let me go after taking this photo and a few others. Not only did my response save me from harassment but I’d surprised myself with my new-found confidence. It was a turning point in my life. That’s why I love the photo.

* * *

Welcome to the Displaced Nation, Svetlana. I have been looking forward to discussing your photo-travel experiences ever since I discovered your blog, Maverickbird, some months ago. The first thing that caught my eye was the unusual title which, as I now know, describes you perfectly. Let’s start with where you were born. And when you spread your wings (an apt metaphor in your case!) to start travelling?
I was born in Calcutta, India, and spread my wings at the age of 17 when I was selected as a flight attendant by an international airline.

I think I can put you in the seasoned traveller category now as you have been travelling for work and pleasure for 16 years. Tell us, what is it like to be a solo female traveller?
My travels could be described as falling into three categories. Initially they were only what I would call city centric and absolutely touristy. You know, the places where flight crews get night halts and have limited time to relax. So there is little else to do except take selfies, shop, eat and sleep. Then came the phase when I travelled with my family, which, apart from the touristy fun bit, also involved taking on a lot of responsibilities. Then finally, at the age of 30, I started traveling solo. Since then my journeys have been challenging but also more fulfilling and enriching.

So at last you are, how shall I say, awakened perhaps? And living a dream. I can appreciate how uplifting that must be so I would love to know what inspired you to travel and what countries you have visited?
It may sound a bit melodramatic, but one day I was happily tied to my role of the traditional Indian married lady, and the next I was suddenly alone: a blow was dealt to my secure little world. I struggled to come to terms with my loss, but grief and depression, coupled with the suffocating social taboos that are dumped on bereaved ladies in India, nearly drove me over the edge. I was still a flight attendant at the time so used my free airline ticket facility and took off. I craved an escape. It was my way to survive. Iran was my first stop. It was tough—but soul touching and completely healing. I returned from Iran with a new-found zest for life, secure in my own identity and confident to take on the world once again.

How many countries in all have you visited?
If I include all the places which I have visited since I started flying then the list would run to nearly 60 countries. As a solo traveller, I have visited and engaged with 13 countries in depth.

“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,/The world offers itself to your imagination…” Mary Oliver

Recovering from a tragedy takes courage, and the fact that you didn’t dwell on your loss for too long shows your resilience. I firmly believe that we learn more from adversity than we do from triumph or success. You have good reason to be proud. So where are you now, how did you end up there and what is life like in a new place?
I am in Sri Lanka where I came to help a friend on a whaling project. I have found Sri Lanka to be very unsettling and unexpectedly tough to handle especially for a single woman of Indian origin. Although it’s a breathtakingly beautiful country with amazing people, culture and history, I have a sense of “alien familiarity” here, which I’m finding difficult to handle. It’s similar to home yet so very different. I am constantly oscillating between feeling at home and being displaced. Sri Lankans only seem to be able to associate with Southern India—hence the dazed reactions of nearly everybody I meet to my descriptions of Calcutta. This is slowing wearing me out.

A whaling project sounds pretty exciting—I hope you don’t let the other issues get you down. Let’s have a look now at some photos that capture a few of your favourite memories and hear your stories about what makes these memories so special.
It is a very arduous trek to reach the Himalayan blue poppies at the Valley of Flowers National Park, in Uttarakhand, a state in the northern part of India. But the beauty at the end of the journey is mind blowing. I still clearly remember how my first sight of the rare blue poppies took my breath away:

Svetlana_blueflowers

Singing a gorgeous blues in the Himalayas; photo credit: Svetlana Baghawan.

Meeting huskies in Lovozero, a village in Northern Russia, was a dream come true for me. Their puppy love floored me completely. It was extremely heart-warming to see the way those tough little dogs did the usual doggy tricks, like yapping away in happiness on being taken out for a run, making cute puppy eyes to get their way and cuddling on one’s lap like big babies.

Svetlana_huskies

Floored by puppy love in Northern Russia; photo credit: Svetlana Baghawan.

The third photo is of my daughter during Diwali. We had gone for a drive and I loved the way her eyes lit up with happiness at the prospect of quality mommy-baby time. It was fresh after our little world had gone awry, and it was magical to see how fast children rebound from losses and find happiness in every moment and in smallest of things:

Svetlana_daughter

A daughter’s delight in Diwali; photo credit: Svetlana Baghawan.

Diwali, for those who don’t know, is the biggest festival celebrated in India. Held around November, it signifies the victory of good over evil and is celebrated with a lot of festivities: spring cleaning, new clothes, home makeovers, auspicious purchases of substantial things like gold, cars, house etc, starting of new ventures, exchanging gifts, sweets and finally with lots of lights and fireworks. The whole country gets lit up in millions of lights as every Indian irrespective of caste, religion and social standing, decorates their house with lamps/lights.

This is a beautiful photo which captures a child’s joy and innocence. I can see she is very precious to you.

“I love the freedom of my wings.” —Banani Ray

Tell us, where were (or are) your favourite places to take photographs?
Shiraz, Iran, is a favourite of mine because of its stunning landscape, spectacular architecture, feast of archaeological wonders, and photogenic people who are also genuinely friendly. I loved the playful rainbows created inside this mosque. To me it truly represented Iran, which I have found to be a friendly, delightful and safe country. Unfortunately, it is shrouded under an unfortunate pall of cruel myths.

Svetlana_mosque

Somewhere over the rainbow…is this gem of an Iranian mosque; photo credit: Svetlana Baghawan.

How interesting and not the general Western perception of the place, I’m sure.

Siberia would be another favourite place to photograph. The sheer amount of unexplored open natural beauty is very freeing and of course the landscape is breathtaking. These wild Altai horses say Siberia to me, with its staggeringly expansive land mass and incredible, wild beauty.

Svetlana_horses

Wild horses in the wilds of Siberia’s Atlai mountains; photo credit: Svetlana Baghawan.

Last but not the least would be Hampi, a village in Karnataka, a state in South West India, famed for being located within the ruins of Vijayanagara, an empire that came to prominence at the end of the 13th century. Although it was tough to decide between Hampi and Kashmir, I love Hampi more for its surreal mix of a tangible ghostly civilization lying scattered amidst one of the most beautiful landscapes in India (think balancing boulder, rice fields, forests and obscure rivers) and little pockets of villages. The enchanting blend of the dead and living is breath-taking and the last photo represents Hampi’s larger-than-life beauty. You have to see it to believe it.

Svetlana_Hampi_India

Contemplating the former glory of a ruined empire (Hampi, India); photo credit: Svetlana Baghawan.

I believe you (I doubt I will ever get the opportunity to see it!). You have clearly been touched by the places you’ve visited, which should be an inspiration to other wannabe solo travellers. I’d like to know if you feel reserved about taking photos of people, particularly when they are conscious that you are doing so?
I love to take people’s photographs but at times do feel a bit conscious about photographing elderly people. This stems from the fact that they belong to a completely different era and might not at all like the idea of getting clicked. Photographing members of the religious fraternity, like monks, also makes me a bit nervous. I almost always ask permission before taking a person’s photo and in case of a language difference, bow, smile, greet and point to my camera to seek permission.

“It’s impossible to explain creativity. It’s like asking a bird, ‘How do you fly?'” —Eric Jerome Dickey

Would you say that photography and the ability to be able to capture something unique which will never be seen again is a powerful force for you?
I would like to think so because I see beauty in almost everything and love to capture it to share those moments with others. I believe that looking at the world through rose-tinted glasses is a gift I received from my mother. When I was growing up, she instilled in me a love for life’s beauty in how she would react to the world around us. She would spot a photogenic army of marching ants, play of sun and shade, curls of flower petals, waving strings of lights, etc., and share those moments with me in such an inspiring way. That said, it took me some time to get in touch with this inborn gift. I first realized it in Delhi while photographing a man selling neon-coloured balloons in front of India Gate. The detailed neon glow against the brooding monument in the dark inspired me, and those photos were very well received by my friends and family. Since then, I’ve been alert to beautiful details and while it was once a conscious effort, it is now a seamless habit, one that has made me much happier and contented. Discovering beauty at every step does make the world a less threatening place.

Your mother clearly had a great influence on you and especially the way you interact with natural scenery. Moving on to the technical aspects of photography: some of our readers may be curious to hear what kind of camera and lenses you use.
I use a Canon 550D although have recently upgraded to 600D and most of the time use 18-200mm lens. I prefer not to use post-processing software, but at times I have tried my hand at Picasa.

That’s a coincidence. I have the 600D as well! But unlike you I spend a lot of time learning and using post-processing. I believe, if you have the time, that learning about and improving photographic skills can add enormously to a blog. Having said that, I love at lot of your photo compositions and the subject matter is really good. Finally, do you have any advice for wannabe photographers who are traveling or living abroad?
Traveling abroad is both extremely tough and fulfilling at the same time. To leave your comfort zone for unknown territories and cultures is difficult but once you start coming to terms with the culture’s uniqueness, you will fall in love with it. Accepting the way a new place is in a non-judgmental way will help the transition process and slowly reveal its unfamiliar yet unique beauty, which you can photograph. Respect for the local culture comes first.

Thank you, Svetlana, for taking the time to tell your heart-warming and fascinating story. The late great American actress Anne Baxter once said:

It’s best to have failure happen early in life. It wakes up the Phoenix bird in you so you rise from the ashes.

You strike me as living proof of that statement. You have overcome adversity and grown as a person: a true triumph!

* * *

Readers, what do you make of Svetlana’s experiences and the photos she has produced? Please leave any questions or feedback in the comments!

Want to get to know her better? I suggest that you visit Svetlana’s blog, maverickbird. She can be contacted by email.

(If you are a travel-photographer and would like to be interviewed by James for this series, please send your information to ml@thedisplacednation.com.)

STAY TUNED for next week’s 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, with Alice nominees, exclusive book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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4 observations after 3 years of holding up a mirror to expat (& repat) life

Las Meninas, by Diego Velázquez [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Las Meninas, by Diego Velázquez [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Earlier this month, I wrote a post in celebration of the Displaced Nation’s third birthday, which occurred on April 1st.

For three years we’ve held up a mirror, as it were, to what we’ve been calling the displaced life, writing and commissioning posts on what motivates people to venture across borders to travel and live.

During the past three years, here’s what our looking-glass has revealed:

1) We aspire to be the fairest of them all.

If our site stats are anything to go by, the Fountain of Youth myth is still alive and well. We may not be searching for water with restorative powers on our travels, but we never tire of reading about Jennifer Scott’s top 20 lessons she learned from Madame Chic while living in Paris, TCK Marie Jhin’s advice on Asian beauty secrets, or my post summarizing beauty tips I picked up on two small islands, England and Japan (three of our most popular posts to date). Heck, even 5 tips on how to look good when you backpack still gets plenty of hits.

2) We mostly just want to have fun.

The popularity of two of Tony James’s Slater’s posts—one listing his five favorite parties around the world and other other telling the tale of his attempt to overcome language barriers in pursuit of an Ecuadorian woman—suggest that good times and love still rank high on the list of reasons why people opt for the road much less traveled. That said, some of us worry about going too far with the latter, if the enduring popularity of my post four reasons to think twice before embarking on cross-cultural marriage is anything to go by.

3) But we love hearing stories about international travelers with a higher purpose.

Most of us do not venture overseas in hopes of changing the world, but we are inspired by tales of those who once did—how else to explain the golden oldie status of 7 extraordinary women with a passion to save souls? And our fascination with the international do-gooder of course continues to the present. Kate Allison’s interview with Robin Wiszowaty, who serves as Kenya Program Director for the Canadian charity Free the Children, still gets lots of hits, as does my post about Richard Branson and other global nomads who delve into global misery. Perhaps we like to bask in reflected glory?!

4) Last but not least, we think we know things other people don’t.

Indeed, the most common phenomenon that has occurred when holding up our mirror to international adventurers is to find our mirror reflected in theirs, and theirs reflected in the lives of people they depict, ad infinitum, in a manner not unlike a Diego Velázquez painting (see above). In my view, this mise en abyme owes to the conviction among (particularly long-term) expats that in venturing so far afield, they have uncovered things about our planet that are worth examining, reporting, and creating something with, be it a memoir of what they’ve experienced (think Jack Scott’s Perking the Pansies: Jack and Liam Move to Turkey, Janet Brown’s Tone Deaf in Bangkok, or Jennifer Eremeeva’s soon-to-be featured Lenin Lives Next Door: Marriage, Martinis, and Mayhem in Moscow), a novel based on their overseas adventures (think Kate Allison’s Libby’s Life or Cinda MacKinnon’s A Place in the World), and/or an art work that springs from what they saw and felt when living in other cultures (eg, Elizabeth Liang’s one-woman show about growing up a TCK).

In short, although many of us can relate to Alice’s feeling of having stepped through the looking glass, we also aren’t afraid to hold up a looking glass to that experience. I often think of Janet Brown telling us she almost went home “a gibbering mess” upon discovering that her Thai landlord was spreading salacious rumors about her, but the point is, she survived to tell us about the experience in her gem of a book. Surely, that’s the kind of hero/ine Linda Janssen has in mind for her self-help book The Emotionally Resilient Expat?

* * *

No doubt there are even more insights our three years of running the Displaced Nation have revealed, but I’ll stop here to see what you make of this list of traits. Does it strike you as being accurate, or perhaps a bit distorted? (Hmmm… Given this site’s proclivity for humor and sending things up, how can you be sure this isn’t a funhouse mirror and I’m not pulling your leg? Har har hardy har har.)

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts.

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EXPAT MOMENTS: What to wear for an Independence Day Party

Another in our series focusing on little moments of expat experience — moments that at the time seemed pifflingly insignificant.

As far as I can gather, the main advantage of Independence Day for many people seems to be the opportunity to dust off and wear that stars-and-stripes leather jacket that they bought back in 1979.

Wishing to get into the Independence Day spirit, it was clear that I also needing something “appropriate” to wear if I wanted to blend in successfully so I headed over to Target, a fine American corporation that would hopefully have even finer American clothing for me to purchase.

Finding the Target employee that looked the most patriotic — the telltale signs are a sensible haircut, good posture, and a strong jaw line — I asked where I might find the most patriotic T-shirts in store. Leading me to a selection of T-shirts featuring the stars and stripes, it was difficult for me to contain my disappointment with this somewhat anemic selection.

“Hmmm, do you have anything more patriotic?” I asked.

The patriotic youth seemed a little confused, a look that made him seem increasingly un-American.

“I was,” I said, “looking for something with a little more pizzazz. Something more OTT. I was kinda hoping you’d have one where Jesus is cradling the liberty bell while a bald eagle looks down approvingly?”

He just stared back at me. I’d been wrong about him. His jaw line was not as strong as I’d thought, his posture a little crooked, and his hair-style now I was closer was greasy and ostentatious.

“Why would we have that?” he sneered.

“Because you love this country — that’s why!”Though difficult, I tried to calm myself down and keep my temper in check. “Okay, have you got anything with a bald eagle in full flight in front of the stars and stripes, but, and this is the important bit, with a kick-ass explosion going on behind the flag? No? Nothing?”

“Have you tried Wal-Mart?”

I wandered off disappointed. This must have been how Benedict Arnold felt. You try and give this American lark a try, but you just end up getting kicked in the teeth. And that was when I saw the above little number, which I decided would from now on be my Independence Day T-shirt.

A version of this post first appeared on Culturally Discombobulated

STAY TUNED for Thursday’s post, in which Kate Allison debunks some common myths about the UK vs the USA.

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In honor of Obscura Day, a tribute to 5 obscure treasures near places I’ve called home

It’s been a month of celebration for The Displaced Nation, beginning with the announcement of our very first birthday on April 1 (no fooling!).

We may be nearing the end of the month, but the festive spirit continues unabated. In fact, in today’s post I’m hosting my own little celebration of Obscura Day, which takes place tomorrow, April 28.

As you may know — or maybe not, since by definition, it’s a little obscure! — Obscura Day is where people all over the world get to show off the unusual and little-known places of interest near wherever they call home. Locals volunteer to give guided tours of such spots — and it’s all organized by the folks who’ve set up Atlas Obscura, a user-generated and editor-curated compendium of the world’s wonders, curiosities and esoterica.

To do my part in enhancing the Obscura Day cause, I’ve rounded up the 5 most interesting and unusual places near the various towns and cities I’ve called home in the past five years.

1. Sail Rock (Hin Bai), off Koh Phangan, Thailand

I happened upon this rock, which for me is one of the foremost world treasures, when living in Thailand in 2007. I was staying in Thong Sala, on the island of Koh Phangan, to train as a professional diver.

This small rock protruding from the Gulf of Thailand doesn’t look like much from the surface, but it’s a world-class diving site — and a comparatively undiscovered one, as it lies off a tiny island famed more for its party scene than its underwater exploration.

There is a vertical tunnel through part of the rock which is absolutely teeming with aquatic life.

I had to earn my way in there by learning enough control over my diving gear and techniques to keep the descent smooth and calm. My boss was very concerned that this place would be preserved for future generations of divers, and he knew how clumsy I was out of the water!

But at long last the day came when I was allowed to enter. I drifted gently downwards, spinning slowly in place to take it all in. I was in a tube filled with corals and sponges, surrounded by weird and colorful creatures like nothing on land. Tendrils waved, lethal looking spikes and spines protruded, fur-like coverings rippled. All in brilliant shades of blue, green, yellow…it was the closest I can imagine to being on some alien planet in a galaxy far, far away!

And yet this amazing world had been right underneath my boat the whole time!

2. Lookout Trees near Pemberton, in the South West region of Western Australia

It was not long after I started living in Perth (where I still am!) that I discovered the Lookout Trees near Pemberton — unimaginably tall trees that had been used as look-out posts for vigilant fire-spotters for almost fifty years. Now they can be climbed, just for the hell of it, by anyone who is a) curious, and b) has the balls of a concrete elephant!

It’s a long — LONG — way to climb on steel rungs driven into the side of the trees, 58 meters (or 190 feet!) to the viewing platform, perched rather precariously above the forest canopy. You can see for hundreds of miles from this towering vantage point, which is all the well; you certainly need something to take your mind off the twin thoughts that a) you’re ridiculously exposed, insanely high and supported only by a single tree, and b) you’re going to have to climb back down…

If you do make it up, you’ll be amazed. At your own bravery as much as the view. If you don’t…well, you’re not alone. More than three quarters of the people who try it never make the top.

3. Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, England

My list wouldn’t be complete without an obscure-ish (nothing is truly obscure any more on the overdeveloped British Isles) sight that’s near my original hometown of Highbridge, in Somerset. I speak of the Cheddar Gorge, a 137m-deep split in the Earth’s crust revealing a fantastic labyrinth of caves extending nearly half a kilometre under the ground.

It wasn’t until I was visiting last year that I made the effort to tour the gorge. There’s a company that runs a caving experience for any level of tourist — so I took my Mum! Bless her, she did have fun slithering across ledges, abseiling down underground cliff faces, and best of all — squeezing through tight tunnels carved by water flowing through the caves.

My favorite part was making her laugh by describing the look of just one end of her protruding from the tunnel. She found it so funny that she couldn’t stop laughing to pull herself any further, and was stuck half-in, half-out for quite some time!

Thankfully, there were experienced guides helping us along and tough overalls and wellies — every part of us was encrusted with mud by the time we saw the sun again.

It was quite a relief to emerge from the darkness, especially after the ritual of turning off our helmet lights in the deepest recess of the cave — experiencing an absence of light so profound I could touch my own eyeball without seeing my finger. Spooky…and awesome!

4. Knife-making in Barrytown, New Zealand

An unassuming little bay on the rugged northwestern coast of New Zealand’s South Island, you could be forgiven for thinking there is nothing in Barrytown at all. You’d mostly be right — I passed through there on a road trip in 2010, trying to get a better sense of the island I was living on (yes, I was living in Christchurch at the time).

I checked into a completely empty backpackers hostel (a novelty itself in tourist-mad New Zealand) and noticed a lone advertising flyer on the wall…which is how I came to meet Robyn and Steve, a couple of modern-day artisans, in their home-based knife-making workshop.

Steve is a self-taught blacksmith. Under his tutelage, I heated and hammered metal, ground and sharpened a blade, carved and polished a handle… and within the day I had created a perfect steel knife like something right out of Lord of the Rings!

It was a fantastic feeling to know I’d hand-crafted something so beautiful and unique — well, okay, I had a bit of help from the expert! As a skill, it was highly addictive.

I quizzed him late into the night about just how difficult it would be to make a sword the same way — and got the feeling I wasn’t the first person to ask him that!

If you ever get chance, do this. Obscure? Check! And absolutely fascinating.

5. Sedlec Ossuary, near Prague, Czech Republic

Okay, I wasn’t really living in Prague — I was just passing through in 2006 — but for obscure treasures, this one takes the biscuit!

Not too far from the city — in a suburban part of Southern Bohemia — lies a small Roman Catholic chapel beneath a small cemetery, known as the Sedlec Ossuary or Bone Chapel, as it’s decorated entirely in human bones. There are bones everywhere one looks, from streamers and chandeliers made from complete skeletons, artfully rearranged, to giant pyramids of skulls on display in the four corners. Altar statues and wall decorations are also fashioned completely from bones — it’s estimated that over 40,000 bodies have contributed to the décor!

Perhaps more macabre is that this isn’t some ancient monument to the grotesque, a product of some long-forgotten civilization like the Mayans; no, this is modern work. Although many of the remains date back to the Black Death in the 14th century, the artful sculpting and artistic arrangement of the bones happened just over a century ago!

It really has to be seen to be believed. Especially as photos aren’t allowed — unless you’re very persuasive, and happen to be in there on your own (which is exceedingly creepy)…and happen to have 100 Czech koruna ($4) to bribe the curator!

***

So. What’s unusual about where you live? Are there any undiscovered gems nearby — cool places, crazy things to do, strange legends? Tell, tell! We want to know! Let us know all about them in the comments. Cheers to obscurity!

STAY TUNED for Monday’s post, another expat book review by Kate Allison.

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Images: Tony Slater’s own photos

RANDOM NOMAD: Suzanne Kamata, American Expat in Japan

Place of birth: Grand Haven, Michigan, a charming tourist town on the shores of Lake Michigan.
Passport: USA
Overseas history: France (Avignon): 1985; Japan (various towns + now Aizumi, Tokushima Prefecture, Shikoku Island): 1988 – present.
Occupation: Author* and TEFL teacher
Cyberspace coordinates: Suzanne Kamata (author site); @shikokusue (Twitter handle)
*Suzanne Kamata is the author of a novel, Losing Kei; a short story anthology, The Beautiful One Has Come (listed on The Displaced Nation’s top books for, by and about expats in 2011); and a picture book, Playing for Papa — all of which concern bicultural relationships and/or families. She is the editor of several anthologies — the most recent being Call Me Okaasan: Adventures in Multicultural Mothering.

What made you leave your homeland in the first place?
A sense of adventure! I wanted to see the world, which I’d glimpsed through reading novels set in other countries, and I wanted to gather up interesting, exotic experiences for the stories and books I would one day write.

Toward the end of my college career, I planned on going into the Peace Corps to teach English in Cameroon. As a fallback, my brother suggested a new program he’d read about in the newspaper. The Japanese government had set up the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme to get native English speakers into public schools. I’d studied Asian history in college, and had an interest in Japan (especially the Heian Age, when nobles communicated via poetry), so I applied. After rigorous interviews for both, I was accepted into both the Peace Corps and the JET Program. I decided to go to Japan first, because the JET Program was a one-year program. I figured I’d do a two-year stint in the Peace Corps later, but then I wound up meeting a Japanese guy…

Is anyone else in your immediate family “displaced”?
My brother spent a year in Germany as an exchange student during high school. I think I was influenced a bit by his experience.

You’ve lived in Japan for a long time. Does any one moment stand out as your “most displaced”?
When I was about to give birth to my twins via C-section. My mother and father were on the other side of the world, and my husband was out in the waiting room. I was surrounded by Japanese-speaking strangers. I wondered if I would be able to remember how to speak Japanese during the operation. I think entering motherhood is like going into another country for everyone, but it’s especially surreal in a foreign hospital.

Is there any particular moment that stands out as your “least displaced”?
No one moment but all the moments when I’m with my children. Whenever I spend time with them, I feel completely at home. My children have never lived in my native country, and they have Japanese passports. When I’m away from them I feel a little bit lost.

Do your kids ever go to the United States for visits?
My kids have been to the States numerous times. Most recently, my son went on a school trip to Hawaii, where, for once in his life, he blended in perfectly. There are many mixed race kids in Hawaii. I think my kids feel pretty comfortable in the States, but being on vacation is different from actually living there.

You may bring one curiosity you’ve collected from your adopted country into The Displaced Nation. What’s in your suitcase?
A furoshiki — a Japanese wrapping cloth — dyed with locally grown indigo. It will be easy to tuck into my suitcase, and I’m sure I’ll find ways to use it during my stay at The Displaced Nation. In Japan, I use wrapping cloths to carry books, covered dishes, and oddly shaped parcels. They’re durable and more attractive and ecological than paper or plastic bags. The color will remind me of the area where I’ve lived for over twenty years. The name of the town where I now live is Aizumi, which means “indigo dwelling place.”

You are invited to prepare one meal based on your travels for other members of The Displaced Nation. What’s on your menu?

Starter: A few slices of sea bream sashimi from the straits of Naruto, with a squeeze of sudachi and soy sauce mixed with wasabi on the side for dipping.
Main course: Cubes of grilled Kobe beef strewn with fresh herbs (julienned shiso leaves, coriander, parsley, slivers of ginger root), steamed barley and rice, and miso soup made with fresh wakame — served with a nice Côtes du Rhône wine.
Dessert: Sudachi pie (my own creation: it’s Key lime pie made with sudachi juice instead of lime), served with espresso. I’d also put a plate of sliced Asian pears on the table.

And now you may add a word or expression from the country where you live in to The Displaced Nation argot. What will you loan us?
I like the Japanese word natsukashii, which refers to nostalgia or a longing for things of the past. I don’t think there’s a perfect equivalent in English. At any rate, Americans don’t go around saying “I’m feeling nostalgic!” whereas natsukashii is frequently used in Japan. If someone brings up a memory from the past, another person, filled with nostalgia, might say, “Natsukashii!”

Today, appropriately enough, is “East Meets West Day.” can you tell us about any parties or celebrations you’ve held since you becoming displaced from your native land, that in some way illustrate this theme?
In Japan, only children’s birthdays are celebrated, usually with a store-bought cake. In our family, everyone, including the adults, gets a birthday party. Typically, we have a meal with celebratory dishes such as rice with red beans, or everybody’s favorite sushi, with a homemade birthday cake for dessert. We sing “Happy Birthday to You” in English, and the birthday person makes a wish before blowing out the candles on the cake. (The Japanese have adopted the custom of candles on a child’s birthday cake, but not the making of wishes.)

The Displaced Nation has just turned one year old. Can you give us some advice on themes to cover in our second year — anything you think should be on our radar?
You might consider interviewing Edward Sumoto, who runs a variety of events for Mixed Race/Third Culture individuals in Japan, and the filmmakers/photograhers/writers involved in the Hafu Project. I believe their long-awaited documentary will debut this year.

Readers — yay or nay for letting Suzanne Kamata into The Displaced Nation? Tell us your reasons. (Note: It’s fine to vote “nay” as long as you couch your reasoning in terms we all — including Suzanne — find amusing!)

STAY TUNED for a diversion from the usual updates from life in Woodhaven. In tomorrow’s post, Kate Allison will be reporting on her latest meeting with Libby. (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)

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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img: Suzanne Kamata standing inside a pumpkin sculpture on the Japanese island of Naoshima (March 2011). The sculpture was created by the well-known artist Yayoi Kusama, who was herself an expat for awhile. (She lived in New York City in the 1960s.)

Wedding celebrations: Who does it better, Britain or America?

We’ve spent the last two weeks looking at festivals and parties around the world, and today it’s time to take a glimpse at nuptial celebrations, with a guest post by Meagan Adele Lopez. As an American who once lived in the UK — she also has a British boyfriend — Lopez can be considered an unofficial expert on British versus American weddings.

Please don’t invite my British beau and me to a wedding unless you really want us to come — we are more than likely going to reply “yes”!

Many have made that mistake. For some reason, it is impossible for us to say “no” — perhaps we are living vicariously through the bride and groom (going to a wedding is much cheaper than throwing one, let’s be honest).

Over the course of four years we have been invited to 28 weddings, 23 of which we will attend/have attended. These weddings span four countries (Wales, England, Dominican Republic and the USA) and 14 cities.

I wish I could say I was a professional wedding guest, getting paid to attend these lavish affairs. But no, we just happen to have many friends who are getting engaged at this time of my life. Some are even going through their second weddings.

One of the many benefits of dating a British guy is being able to attend British weddings — complete with hats, fascinators, castles and tail coats. I’ve become a bit of an expert on both.

So, I’ve been keeping a running tally of the best things that British and American wedding celebrations have to offer. Right now Britain is winning, but only by one, so that could change!

4 great things about British weddings

1) Less financial outlay for bridesmaids
It’s kind of atrocious that Americans still “invite” their best friends in the world to have the “honor” of becoming a bridesmaid only to pick out the most expensive dress they can find, make their best friends pay for it, and take them on a lavish bachelorette party that they must also pay for.

The British have it right. I mean, if you’re paying £25,000 on a wedding already, why not shell out an extra thousand to make your poor bridesmaids happy? After all, they didn’t choose to get married, you did.

2) Betting on the speeches
Let’s face it — sometimes speeches at a wedding can be really, really hilarious and entertaining. They can be so entertaining and hilarious that you have no idea how much time has gone by, whether or not you’ve eaten, or if the dancing has even happened yet. But, a lot of times, they can be painful and long, and somewhat boring. So, what better way to keep the crowd entertained than by going to each table and getting the guests’ bets on how long the speeches will last?

Personally, I love speeches and find it fascinating to see how each person tackles this challenge to charm a crowd of 150 people — 20 of whom you probably know personally. However, knowing that I have the chance to win a pot of 200 quid makes it that much better!

3) The Groom’s Speech
I actually find it a travesty that American grooms aren’t made to give a speech. Perhaps it’s because a woman marrying a British man knows that this one speech might be the only time she will hear her husband tell her how gorgeous, wonderful and amazing she is, and how he is the luckiest man on the planet. After all, British men aren’t known for being overly flattering or sentimental. I blubber like an idiot, wiping the mascara from my eyes, when I hear a doting British man, for the first (and probably only) time, open up to his friends and family about why he is truly in love with this woman.

But I’m sure most brides who marry a British man will tell you that the groom’s speech is one of the best moments of their wedding night. For me, as a guest, it beats the father’s speech and even the first dance. Perhaps the vows are the only thing that trump it.

4) Romantic venues
I’ve attended weddings in a ninth-century castle, in a tenth-century church, in an old manor house in Sussex, on a farm in the West Country, in a hotel where prime ministers stay, and next to a marsh in West Wales. Something about a British wedding makes it that much more romantic. Of course, it’s every girl’s dream to get married in a castle, but in Great Britain, you actually can!

3 great things about American weddings

1) Open bar
The first time I truly found out about the horror that is a cash bar at a wedding, I was invited to just the evening part. You see, my boyfriend and I had been together for over a year, but since the groom had never met me, he didn’t think it important to invite (ah hem, “pay”) for me to come to dinner, or attend the ceremony.

Apparently, it’s quite normal in England for a significant other not to be invited to the entire evening with their partner if they have never met the girlfriend. Being an American, I was already incredibly offended — especially since we had traveled an hour to be there, stayed in a really expensive hotel (the only one in the entire town), and paid for two separate £40 cab rides to the venue from the hotel (since we weren’t leaving together). So, you can imagine my dismay when I got to the reception and had to pay for my own drinks! I understand that not everyone can afford to have an open bar, but I most certainly prefer the American mentality that when you invite a guest, they are to be treated as such.

2) The women’s speeches
In Great Britain, traditionally, the speeches include the Father of the Bride, the Groom and the Best Man. I agree with all of these choices for speeches, but I have to admit, I did find it a teeny bit sexist that no women spoke at weddings the first time I saw it happen. Most British women don’t mind since they would rather the attention be off of them for the night, but what happened to the Maid of Honor? Why can’t she throw in a speech?

Women bring a different take to speech land, and I definitely prefer the American tradition of allowing us to speak.

3) Creative venues
Where the British score points for tradition, history, elegance and romance, American weddings score points for creativity, grandiosity and variety. Obviously, America is a much bigger country with many more choices for venues, and many more options for good weather. I have been to a wedding on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, at a museum in the middle of downtown Chicago, a country club in Maryland, and by a river at a historic house in Austin, Texas. The possibilities are truly endless in America, and always keep you guessing. While many British weddings have struck me as being similar, it’s hard for me to say that any American wedding has resembled another. This is also probably due to the diversity of the American population and the variety of religions in this country.

Combining the two traditions — still working on that!

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that with all of these weddings I didn’t think about how I would like my half British, half American wedding to go…but I simply can’t admit to what I dream of just yet. Call it superstition or what have you, but until I get engaged I won’t disclose my dream wedding. My worst nightmare is having my dream wedding down on paper, and then it never happening!

In the meantime, I’ll continue to break down the weddings I go to and figure out which bits I want to keep for myself.

Editor’s note: This post is adapted from a post that appeared on Smitten by Britain: “British vs. American Weddings” (25 January 2012).

Question for readers: Have you been to weddings in the country where you live? How do they compare?

MEAGAN ADELE LOPEZ is the author of Three Questions: Because a quarter-life crisis needs answers, which was featured in February on The Displaced Nation. You can learn more about Lopez and her book at her author site and by following her on Twitter: @meaganadele.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, an interview with first-time novelist Martin Crosbie. (Sign up for our Dispatch to be eligible for the giveaway of his book, A Temporary Life!)

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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“We read to know we’re not alone”: 1st-ever litfest for expats & random nomads

The displaced writer Hazel Rochman once said that reading “makes immigrants of us all”:

Reading takes us away from home, but more important, it finds homes for us everywhere.

That must be why author interviews have played such an important role in the entertainment mix provided by The Displaced Nation since our founding one year ago.

A book that enables us to escape to a new world without buying a plane ticket? Bring it on!

A book that makes us feel at home in another part of the world? There’s nothing we crave more.

We’ve also taken authors into our confidence who, as St. Augustine once advised, treat the world as their book, rather than staying put and reading only one page. Because of their own peripatetic ways, these writers have much to say to the rest of us nomadic types about how to make sense of feelings of isolation, ennui and displacement.

As C.S. Lewis once said:

We read to know we’re not alone.

In honor of The Displaced Nation’s first anniversary, as well as in the spirit of World Party Month, I would like to propose the first-ever Displaced Nation literary festival featuring authors who have been interviewed or in some way featured on the site during the past year.

“We read to know we’re not alone”: THE FIRST-EVER LITERARY FESTIVAL FOR EXPATS AND RANDOM NOMADS
Note: The following is a tentative line-up. It includes previews of the kinds of insights we can expect to glean from such an extraordinary gathering of expat literati.

We anticipate the festival to extend from a Sunday night to a Thursday morning, with an opening night gala and a couple of closing events. Click on the headlines to go to the event descriptions for each segment:

OPENING NIGHT GALA EVENT

It seems only fitting that we offer something totally mad on our opening night. We will screen Alice in Wonderland, the 1903 British silent film directed by Cecil Hepworth and Percy Stow, which was partially restored by the British Film Institute and released in 2010. (NOTE: You can see portions of the film in a video specially made by Anthony Windram during The Displaced Nation’s “Alice in Wonderland” theme month.)

The film is memorable for its use of special effects: Alice’s shrinking in the Hall of Many Doors, and then growing too large in the White Rabbit’s home, getting stuck and reaching for help through a window.

The film matches our theme of “We read to know we’re not alone” — could anyone ever feel lonelier than Alice did at such moments?

But here’s the new twist: the screening will feature a live accompaniment by Seremedy, the displaced Swedish visual kei band this is now making such a sensation in Japan, reacting musically and without any rehearsal beforehand, to the silent film in front of them. Unique, spontaneous — and perhaps even terrifying, given that the band’s (male) lead guitarist, Yohio, looks like an anime version of Alice.

DAY ONE: “We’re not alone” — We have each other

Iranian Childhoods, Inspiring Stories

TONY ROBERTS and ASHLEY DARTNELL each spent portions of their childhood in Iran. Roberts has produced a novel based on his memories of that time, Sons of the Great Satan, which we featured on this blog about a year ago. Dartnell, who has yet to be featured (we hope she will!), released her memoir, Farangi Girl, last year (it was recently issued in paperback).

Roberts and Dartnell have in common the status of being so-called third culture kids — growing up in a third culture not common to their parents (Roberts’ parents were American and Dartnell was the product of an American mother and British father). They also have in common that they were enjoying their lives in Tehran until something terrible happened — the memory of which affects them to this day.

In Dartnell’s case, it was the sudden collapse of her father’s business (her parents subsequently split up), whereas for Roberts, it was the experience of being evacuated because of the American hostage crisis — suddenly, he was back at the family’s small farm town in Kansas, having no idea of where his friends had gone.

TCKs experience such traumas in isolation (Roberts continued to feel isolated well into his adulthood). Roberts and Dartnell, who have never met before, welcome the opportunity to forge a new connection over their common displacement.

PERFORMANCE: “The White Ship,” by Ethan Kenning

Ex-folk singer Ethan Kenning — known as GEORGE EDWARDS when performing with the former psychedelic rock band H.P. Lovecraft — will give a special performance of “The White Ship,” a song based on a mystical tale by horror writer H.P. Lovecraft (from whom the band took its name), about a vessel sailing on a sea of dreams. Critics have described it as “baroque, Middle Eastern-flavored psychedelia at its finest.”

Multicultural Marriage Boot Camp

Two Wendys — WENDY WILLIAMS and WENDY TOKUNAGA — will answer questions about the benefits as well as challenges involved in marrying someone from another culture.

Wendy Williams is the author of The Globalisation of Love and has coined a term, “GloLo,” to refer to this phenomenon. She was last week’s Random Nomad and has also been a contributor to The Displaced Nation with the post: “Why expat is a misleading term for multicultural couples” — a topic big enough to be a festival theme in its own right!

Wendy Tokunaga, who was one of The Displaced Nation’s 12 Nomads of Christmas, recently published Marriage in Translation: Foreign Wife, Japanese Husband, consisting of interviews with 14 Western women involved in cross-cultural relationships.

GloTinis will be served — those in particularly challenging unions may wish to order theirs straight up.

Romance Across Borders: Fairytale or Myth?

JANE GREEN, a prolific writer and one of the founders of chick literature, will interview MEAGAN ADELE LOPEZ and MICHELLE GORMAN — both of whom have produced first novels exploring the idea of looking for romance in other cultures. Lopez is the author of Three Questions: Because a quarter-life crisis needs answers (self-published, October 2011), about a cross-cultural romance that blossoms through the asking of three questions; and Gorman, of Single in the City: One girl, one city, one disaster waiting to happen (Michael Joseph, 2010), about an American who goes to London in search of love and the perfect life.

The Displaced Nation recently featured Lopez on our site and will feature her tomorrow in a guest post. We have yet to interview Gorman but would like to — especially as she recently self-published Misfortune Cookie, about a young woman who moves to Hong Kong to be with her boyfriend.

Both women relied heavily on their own autobiographies to produce these first novels. As Lopez said in her interview with Tony James Slater:

Hey — they always say to write about what you know, so that’s what I did!

But is it the stuff of chick lit? No one is better placed to judge this than the displaced author Jane Green (she is now an expat living in Connecticut). As early readers of The Displaced Nation will recall, Green “came in” for a chat during our coverage of last year’s Royal Wedding — she had just produced a multimedia book celebrating the young royals as an example of a “modern fairytale.”

Though Kate and Will aren’t from different cultures, they might as well have been since Kate — unlike the Prince’s mother, Diana — does not come from a royal lineage. But from Green’s point of view, this is what is makes the couple modern — and why their marriage is likely to last:

I loved discovering just how unusual William and Kate are: grounded, humble, and thoroughly modern, eschewing much of the pomp and circumstance that surrounded the wedding of Charles and Diana.

One Person’s Home — Another Person’s Nightmare?

BARBARA CONELLI, who lives in Manhattan for half of the year and Milan for the other half, will interview SHIREEN JILLA, whose first novel was set in the Big Apple.

Thanks in large part to the influence of her Italian grandmother, Conelli qualifies as the ultimate Italophile. Last year she published Chique Secrets of Dolce Vita last year — her first book in a three-part series about the Italian grasp of the “good life.” When asked by Kate Allison to explain the differences between her two homes of Milan and New York City, Conelli said that New Yorkers need to learn the Italian art of taking the time to actually live:

We need to stop and smell the roses more often.

On this point, Jilla would certainly concur. After spending three years in New York as an expat when her husband was BBC’s North America correspondent, Jilla came away thinking that “New York is a city populated by control freaks.”

But, unlike Conelli, Jilla found this control freakery sinister — which was what inspired her to write a novel that depicts the city as, as one critic said, “a teeming pit of vipers, only just covered with a finely buffed veneer of sophistication.”

In the online discussion we hosted of Exiled, Jilla commented on how culturally different New York and London are — despite New York not being seen as a particularly adventurous posting among the expat crowd. She went on:

New York in fact reminds me a lot more of Rome than London. Passion is lived out on the street, for good and bad.

Hmmm… It will be interesting to see what Conelli, whose series includes a book on Rome’s joyful idleness, makes of that!

Are Expats Defined by Their Boundaries — or the Lack? James Joyce Unplugged

One of The Displaced Nation’s founders, ANTHONY WINDRAM, and the novelist JOANNA PENN will join forces to discuss the topic of whether being an expat necessarily entails producing “expat” literature. In a post published last year on The Displaced Nation, Windram noted that although James Joyce spent most of his adult life in continental Europe, he continued to write about his home, Ireland:

If we were to be glib, we might say that Finnegans Wake was conceived in Dublin, but Paris was its midwife.

Likewise, Joanna Penn, who has been a TCK and an expat, does not self-identify as an expat writer and sets her novels at least partly in Oxford, the city she calls home. She does feel, however, that wanderlust is a big part of what fuels her to write thrillers set in various countries, as she explained in a comment on a post deconstructing a post of hers on what “home” means to writers.

DAY TWO: “We’re not alone” — Global activism

Travel for a Purpose

For this event, we hope to engage the world-famous novelist BARBARA KINGSOLVER to interview ROBIN WISZOWATY, who is Kenya program director for the Canadian charity Free the Children and the author of a memoir targeted at young adults on her own experience of living in Kenya, My Maasai Life.

Kate Allison interviewed Wiszowaty during the month when The Displaced Nation explored the topic of global philanthropy.

Around the same time, Allison also wrote a post on Kingsolver, exploring the idea that her novel The Poisonwood Bible was intended an allegory for what happens when you barge into someone else’s culture thinking you know everything and they know nothing.

Notably, Wiszowaty could almost have been a Kingsolver character in the following incident that occurred during her initial two months in Nairobi, as reported to Allison:

One street man nearby…said in Swahili, “What are you doing in Kenya, if you can’t help us?”

Despite my halting comprehension of the language, I understood his question. What was I doing here? Was I here to help Kenyans? I couldn’t remember any sort of altruistic impulse as my reason for being me here. I only pictured myself three months earlier, curled up on my family room couch reading books on cultural sensitivity, or shopping in neighborhood department stores for appropriate clothing, thinking this was a chance for me to enlarge my experience and pick up others’ points of view. I’d been driven simply by a desire to escape, not to improve the lives of these poor people.

Wiszowaty, of course, came around and now thinks constantly about what she can do for Kenya. We expect that Kingsolver, who funds a prize for authors of unpublished works that support social change, will approve; but will she also offer a critique?

PERFORMANCE: “The Boy with a Thorn in His Side,” by Pete Wentz

Fall Out Boy’s PETE WENTZ will do a performance in which he puts passages from his 2004 book, The Boy with a Thorn in His Side, to music. The book chronicles the nightmares he had as a child.

Wentz is a supporter of Invisible Children, Inc., an organization dedicated to helping the cause of child refugees in Uganda. He once participated in an event called “Displace Me,” in which 67,000 activists throughout the United States slept in the streets in makeshift cardboard villages.

(Notably, Wentz has also earned his chops as world traveler. Before Fall Out Boy went on hiatus in late 2009, it made an unsuccessful bid to the only band to play a concert on all seven continents in less than nine months — unfortunately, weather conditions prevented them from flying to Antarctica.)

Why Feisty Heroines Need Not Always Be Named Pollyanna, Calpurnia or Hermione

Melbourne-based author GABRIELLE WANG writes books under the Penguin label targeted at young adults in Australia. Her heroines are always non-white, Chinese or some mix. They are culturally marginalized.

Wang, who fell into writing accidentally — she had planned to be a book illustrator — loves to use her imagination to create characters who are historically plausible yet never show up in history books. One such character is Mimi, who feels ashamed of being Chinese until she has a magical, transformative experience that makes her proud of her cultural heritage.

Another such character is Poppy, a half-Chinese, half-Aborigine girl who lived in the 19th century.

Wang told us she was able to draw on her own background to portray how Poppy might have felt:

I think I was able to imagine the Aboriginal child’s situation quite easily because I know what it feels like to be an outsider, and to suffer racial prejudice. I was the only Asian child in my school in Melbourne and I only saw white faces in the street.

The Search for Paradise

The search for paradise has been underway for as long as human history. Understood as an idyllic realm located at an exact spot somewhere on the earth, and yet as a place separated from the world, the possibility of reaching paradise has aroused the curiosity of travelers over many centuries and continues to do so.

MARK DAMAROYD, who has lived in Thailand for the past several years, subscribes to the idea that paradise is indeed what many men have claimed it to be since time immemorial: life on an exotic island, with sandy beaches, coral reefs and coconut trees, and with an exotic, much younger girlfriend. That is why, as he told us in an interview last summer, he had Koh Samui in mind when creating the island setting for his first novel — the aptly named Pursuit to Paradise.

Coming from a somewhat different direction is JACK SCOTT, whose memoir — Perking the Pansies: Jack and Liam Move to Turkey — was reviewed at the end of last year by Kate Allison.

In it, Scott tells the story of how he and his civil partner, Liam, left the rat race in London behind to live in Bodrum, Turkey. A picturesque spot on the Mediterranean with a temperate climate, the city was their vision of paradise.

Naturally, though, things were not that simple. The couple soon encountered another rat race — the expat one. To quote directly from Scott’s book:

Sad people, bad people, expats-in-a-bubble people. They hate the country they came from; they hate the country they’ve come to. This was my social life. This is what I gave everything up for. This was Liam’s bloody Nirvana. We were the mad ones, not them.

PERFORMANCE: “Red Right Hand,” by Nick Cave

NICK CAVE is a distinguished musician and songwriter from Down Under. He took the title of this song from a line in John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost, referring to the vengeful hand of God. According to the lyrics: “You’re one microscopic cog in his catastrophic plan.”

Cave has also occasionally dabbled in literature. As one reviewer put it, his first novel “reads like a logical extension of the dark world his music has already created.”

Ghosts of Nations Past and Future

In honor of Dickens’ bicentenary, Displaced Nation contributor ANTHONY WINDRAM will give a spirited reading of his favorite passages from A Christmas Carol (already explored in a post), followed by a discussion of whether Scrooge’s displacement could inspire the planet’s wealthiest people to behave more humanely. To quote from one of the comments made on Windram’s original post:

If such a man as Scrooge can displace his lust for money with a love of humankind — and an awareness of other people’s suffering — then does that mean there’s hope for the 1%?

Through the Looking Glass: Delhi & Bangkok

JANET BROWN, author of the travelogue Tone Deaf in Bangkok, and DAVE PRAGER, author of the travelogue Delirious Dehli, will discuss the need for travelers to do more than the usual amount of preparation when entering cultures that are very different from one’s own, on a par with Alice’s Wonderland.

As Brown explained in her interview with us, travelers to Thailand can be “tone deaf” because Thai is a tonal language and it’s easy to make mistakes. But they can also be “tone deaf” when it comes to figuring out the Thais’ communication style:

“You looked so beautiful yesterday” probably means today you resemble dog food and ought to go home and rectify that at once.

Whereas for Prager, one of the points about living in Dehli is that you may end up deaf as there are always people, animals and vehicles around.

In conversation with Anthony Windram, Prager admitted that getting used to America again — he and his wife now live in Denver — hasn’t been easy:

What’s struck me is that the US just seems so empty. It’s not that India is always intensely crowded; rather, it’s that India you’re never completely alone.

WRITING LAB: What (Not) to Write

Expat writing coach par excellence KRISTEN BAIR O’KEEFFE will explore techniques to develop your writing skills and help you find which world, of your many worlds, you want to write about, and how to get started.

Last summer’s post “6 celebrated women travel writers with the power to enchant you” was officially dedicated to O’Keeffe for delivering these pearls of writerly wisdom during her “Expat Writing Prompts” series:

Writing a multi-volume treatise is NOT the answer. Of this, I am sure.
Instead find a nugget. A moment. A single object. One exchange. One epiphany. One cultural revelation.
Find one story and tell it.
Just it.

DAY THREE: “We’re not alone” — Eat, drink, be merry & look good

Classy and Fabulous: French Style as Universal Norm

The French may be under fire for how they treat immigrants, but expats continue to thrive there. For this event, the classy and fabulous JENNIFER SCOTT, author of Lessons from Madame Chic: The Top 20 Things I Learned While Living in Paris — which has been a runaway success (it’s now under contract by a major publisher!) — will set out to prove, as she did last month in an interview with us, that no one can edit down their clothes and belongings as well as the French can.

The equally classy and fabulous ANASTASIA ASHMAN, co-editor of The Expat Harem: Foreign Women in Modern Turkey — and participant in our “Cleopatra for a Day” series last month — will serve as discussant. Two of the cultural influences for Ashman’s wardrobe are Southeast Asia (she once lived in Malaysia) and Turkey (she was an expat in Istanbul for several years). She does, however, adore French perfume!

Which Came First, Story or Recipe?

It’s food — so that means France again! ELIZABETH BARD, an American who lives in France with her French husband, and her opposite number, CORINE GANTZ, a Frenchwoman who lives near LA with her American husband, will explore why food is so central to the works each of them produces.

Bard is the author of the best-selling Lunch in Paris: A Love Story with Recipes. So did she ever think of writing it the other way around: recipes with a love story? Here’s what she told ML Awanohara in their conversation last autumn:

When I sat down to think about the moments that really helped me discover French life, I kept coming back to the dinner table, the markets, the recipes — so it seemed natural to structure Lunch in Paris around those experiences.

Gantz can no doubt relate. When we featured her novel, Hidden in Paris, last summer, here’s what she said when the topic of food came up:

For me, writing a novel is a barely disguised way for me to talk about food — the novel being a vehicle for food just as grilled toast is a vehicle for foie gras.

Fans of Hidden in Paris, please note: Gantz has just now released a playful cookbook featuring 20 delicious dishes that were described in mouth-watering details in the novel.

Moderating the discussion between Bard and Gantz will be the well-known novelist JOANNE HARRIS. Harris, who was born over a sweet shop in Yorkshire to a French mother and an English father, rarely misses an opportunity to bring food and drink into her novels — the most famous example being Chocolat.

Displaced Storytelling Circle

Verbal antics, stories, music and more. Highlights include readings by

  1. Displaced Nation contributor TONY JAMES SLATER, from his highly entertaining travelogue, That Bear Ate My Pants! Adventures of a Real Idiot Abroad.
  2. Displaced Nation interviewee ALLIE SOMMERVILLE, from her wry memoir Uneasy Rider: Confessions of a Reluctant Traveller. (Allie, please read the passage about the campervan being too wide for one of the Spanish streets!)
  3. Displaced Nation nomad KAREN VAN DER ZEE, from her collection of expat stories. (Miss Footloose, please tell us the ones about the crocodile and the couple in the Roman restaurant!)
  4. Founder KATE ALLISON, from The Displaced Nation’s weekly fiction series, Libby’s Life, which as you may have noticed, is now up to 46 episodes. (Kate, be sure to read the one where you introduce Sandra, Libby’s MIL from hell!)

The Art of Drink: Ian Fleming

One of The Displaced Nation’s founders, ANTHONY WINDRAM, will talk about the role of food (and especially drink) in Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, on which he did a post last year:

The Bond of the novels isn’t solely a martini drinker. He’s always one to try anything local that’s on offer. In Jamaica he’ll drink a glass of Red Stripe, in the US he’ll have a Millers Highlife beer. Throughout the novels Fleming uses food and drink to convey an alien culture, demonstrate social status, show Bond’s mood and his sophistication and ease with the world.

An array of drinks — not only shaken martinis but also bottles of Heineken!– will be served. Green figs and yogurt, along with coffee (very black), will be made available to anyone who is still suffering from jetlag.

Enchanted by Wisteria: Elizabeth Von Arnim Unveiled

Displaced Nation founder (and the author of this post!) ML AWANOHARA will read her favorite passages from the collected works of travel writer Elizabeth von Arnim, on whom she wrote a post last year. As she pointed out then, Von Arnim was fond of the idea of a woman escaping her marital, motherly and household duties in the pursuit of simple pleasures such as gardens and wisteria. A magical Italian castle — such as the one featured in her best-known novel, The Enchanted April — can also be a tonic.

CLOSING NIGHT + BONUS EVENT

To close the festival, we will screen both the Swedish and Hollywood versions of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, followed by a critique from CHRIS PAVONE, author of the new novel The Expats. Pavone will discuss whether:

  1. it was really necessary for Hollywood to produce its own (non-subtitled) version; and
  2. all the female-perpetrated violence cropping up in film and on TV of late presages a “fourth wave” of feminism.

Pavone is well qualified to judge the latter as his novel (not yet featured on TDN!) is an offbeat spy story with a female protagonist — a burned-out CIA operative who moves to Luxembourg. Apparently, this was the kind of thing Pavone thought about when he was trailing his spouse in that cobblestoney old town.

And, just when you thought it was all over, we bring you a final treat: a chance to hear from the historian SUSAN MATT, who recently published Homesickness: An American History to much fanfare in the thinking media. Matt disputes the stereotype of Americans as westward wanderers by showing that Americans are returning to their homeland in greater numbers — that’s if they ever leave at all. (Our ancestors must be turning over in their graves!)

* * *

So, shall I sign you up? And can you think of any additional topics/authors/performers who ought to be featured? I look forward to reading your suggestions in the comments.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s guest post from Meagan Adele Lopez, on the differences between American and British wedding celebrations.

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!

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7 worldwide ways to avoid, forget, or celebrate Friday 13th!

Not being superstitious myself, I tend to scoff at today’s date and treat it like any other. Then again, I once knew someone who had been involved in only two car accidents in her life, both of which occurred on Friday 13th. On a larger transportation scale, the ill-fated Apollo 13  launched at 13:13 (admittedly on April 11th) and exploded on April 13th. And a 1993 study found that the number of hospital admissions from traffic accidents were likely to be 52% higher on Friday 13th than on any other day.

That’s enough to make anyone superstitious about the date, so I won’t think too hard about the fact that, even as I type, my nearest and dearest is somewhere over the Atlantic ocean at 37,000 feet. Nevertheless, I’d like to hazard a guess that the increase in road accidents might be related to the increase in rosary beads and good luck charms hanging from rear view mirrors, thereby obscuring drivers’ visions.

Facts, figures, logic.

The fear of Friday 13th is known variously as friggatriskaidekaphobia, triskaidekaphobia, and paraskevidekatriaphobia. (Too bad if you also suffer from sesquipedaliophobia.) While the combo of Friday and 13 as a double whammy of misfortune is a relatively new invention — the first English reference wasn’t until 1869 — Friday and 13 have always had a bad rap separately.

Think positively about that, all you triskaidekaphobics: instead of being fearful every seven or thirty days, at least the prophets of doom have streamlined the calendar so that now you need only live in terror for two or occasionally three days a year.

Sadly, 2012 is a year with three Friday 13ths. Bad luck.

But take heart!  TDN, with its usual brand of helpfulness, is coming to the rescue of readers still cowering under their duvets and waiting for Saturday to arrive.

You could:

1. Travel to Spain or Greece.

But do it on a Wednesday. While Spanish-speaking countries consider Tuesday 13th to be unlucky, Greece considers Tuesdays in general to be unlucky. Travel on Wednesday, and you should have your bases covered.

2. Travel to Italy.

Friday 17th is unlucky there. Unfortunately, due to the external influence of a dozen Jason movies, Friday 13th is now also seen as unlucky.

So if you’re the type to chuck salt over your shoulder while you’re having a bad day in the kitchen,  maybe you should stay away from Italy — mid-month, at least.

3. Take your mind off it — kiss someone.

Or maybe that’s why you’re still under the duvet? Yesterday, Twitter users decreed that Friday April 13th should be (Inter)National Kissing Day…even though the official date is nearly three months away on July 6th.

4. Celebrate New Year.

Today also happens to be the Tamil New Year,  Puthandu, which falls on either April 13th or 14th of the Gregorian calendar, and is celebrated by Tamils in Tamil Nadu, in Pondicherry in India, and by the Tamil population in Malaysia, Singapore, Reunion Island, and Mauritius.

Tamils mark the day with a feast, decorate their house entrances with kolams, while neem flowers and raw mangoes symbolize growth and prosperity.

If you’re not in any of those countries and you don’t normally celebrate this festival, maybe you should be less ambitious with your own preparations. Buy some mango sorbet.

5. Don your helmet and leathers and go biking.

PD13 is a big celebration for motorcyclists at Port Dover in Ontario, and has been held every Friday 13th since 1981.

If you’re not a biker, ride pillion with one who is. If nothing else, the insects smashing at high speed against your teeth will take your mind off the fact that it’s Friday 13th.

6. Buy a lottery ticket.

On Friday March 13, 2009, Isabel Zaleya of Suffolk County, New York, won a jackpot of $26 million after his friends urged him not to play the lottery that day…because of the date.

7. It’s World Party Month! Throw a party!

Release the Halloween decorations from the basement, and have a Halloween party in April. Come on — did you really need an excuse?

STAY TUNED for some reminiscing on Monday, when we look back at our top posts and themes from our first year.

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!

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Image: Victor Habbick / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

RANDOM NOMAD: Wendy Williams, Canadian Expat in Austria

Place of birth: Northern Ontario, Canada
Passport: Canadian, and apparently I can live in Austria forever now with my unlimited Aufenhaltsbewilligung.
Overseas history: Austria (present), Germany, Switzerland, Slovak Republic, UK. I have also worked on a project basis for extended periods in Sweden, Tunisia, Holland and Estonia.
Occupation: Author*
Cyberspace coordinates: The Glolo Blog; The Globalisation of Love (Facebook page); and @WilliamsGloLo (Twitter handle)
*Wendy Williams is the author of The Globalisation of Love, one of the top books for expats in 2011.

What made you leave your homeland in the first place?
Burning curiosity! I just love to know what is around the next corner — and the corner after that, too. My grandparents are all immigrants to Canada from Europe, and I guess listening to their stories about their homelands got me thinking that “home” can be very different and it can be anywhere.

Is anyone else in your family “displaced” besides your grandparents?
I am the only of my siblings who went back across the pond, as my grandmother would say — though they certainly come to visit me in Austria (and to ski!).

You’ve lived in quite a few places in Europe before moving to Vienna with your Austrian husband. Does any one moment of that time abroad stand out as your “most displaced”?
While vacationing on one of the Canary Islands, which belong to Spain, I fell ill and required an injection in my, ahem, gluteus maximus. It was 1995, when the so-called Turbot War took place between Canada and Spain — a dispute over fishing rights along the coast of Canada that challenged international diplomatic relations between the two countries. The doctor held up the rather long needle and said, “So, you’re from Canada are you? You like to fish?” I remember thinking, “Uh-oh, this is going to hurt!” It may be conjecture, but I felt the jab of the needle was particularly forceful.

Is there any particular moment that stands out as your “least displaced”?
It happens all the time while skiing in Austria. I grew up skiing on a tiny little bump of a hill and always dreamed about the long alpine slopes of Austria. I was lucky enough to marry an Austrian who is also a passionate skier, and we ski frequently throughout the winter. I feel right at home as I swish, swish down the slopes. I enjoy the après ski, too!

You may bring one curiosity you’ve collected from your adopted country into The Displaced Nation. What’s in your suitcase?
From Georgia in the Caucasus: Antique brass candle holders
From Murano, a series of islands in the Venetian Lagoon: A red Murano chandelier
From Morocco: An onyx stone bathroom sink
From Austria: An 18th-century Tyrolean kitchen table
From France: A yellow ceramic Pernot jug
My house is a diary of my travels through life, and as you can see, I plan to continue living that way on The Displaced Nation — even though it will entail dragging in a rather large and heavy suitcase!

You are invited to prepare one meal based on your travels for other members of The Displaced Nation. What’s on your menu?

Appetizer: My husband’s pumpkin soup with 100% pure Austrian pumpkin seed oil
Salad: Arugula mixed salad with blue cheese, grapes, cranberries, pear and pistachios — as served at the Loriot in Washington, D.C.
Main course: Viennese Schnitzel with potato salad … of course!
Dessert: My mom’s lemon meringue pie
Drinks: Bubbly to start — Crémant d’Alsace is one of my favourites; and for the main course, red wine from Burgenland in Austria.

And now you may add a word or expression from the country where you live in to The Displaced Nation argot. What will you loan us?
Actually, I would like to loan you an expression that my husband picked it up while living in Australia: Happy as Larry. (I picked it up from him while living in Austria.)

This month we are looking into parties and celebrations abroad. What has been your most memorable party or celebration since you became “displaced” from your native land?
The celebration of my 10th wedding anniversary, in 2008! My husband and I had about 50 friends in a small restaurant in Vienna that served elegant, locally-sourced organic food. An opera singer sang “‘O Sole Mio” so beautifully we thought the wine glasses would burst like in a cartoon. We gave a speech about our 10 years together and then announced what we had planned for the upcoming years — I was four months pregnant. The crowd went wild with excitement and gave a 10-minute standing ovation amongst congratulatory hugs, tears and high fives. It was total kitsch and corny Hollywood romance — and we loved every minute of it!

The Displaced Nation has just turned one year old. Can you give us some advice on themes to cover in our second year — anything you think should be on our radar?
Multicultural couples — what I call GloLo couples — usually meet in interesting ways. Chance and coincidence often conspire to bring two people together. It would be fun if The Displaced Nation could feature some stories from GloLo couples about how they met — and whether their displaced lives brought them together — and how they worked things out so they can stay together.

Editor’s note: In February Wendy Williams contributed a post to The Displaced Nation that has remained very popular: Why “expat” is a misleading term for multicultural couples.

Readers — yay or nay for letting Wendy William into The Displaced Nation? Tell us your reasons. (Note: It’s fine to vote “nay” as long as you couch your reasoning in terms we all — including Wendy — find amusing.)

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s installment from our displaced fictional heroine, Libby, as she discovers that Oliver’s mum and her own mother have more in common than she’d realized. (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)

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img: Wendy wrapped up against the elements — but is she in Austria, her adopted home, or Northern Ontario, her birthplace? (Hint: It was minus 25 degrees Celsius.)

Party big! 5 of the world’s biggest bashes, to end all bashes

“Celebrate we will, because life is short but sweet for certain.”
Dave Matthews Band, lyrics from “Two Step”

Because it’s our birthday here at the Displaced Nation, I’ve been having a think about my favorite parties from around the world. I’ve been to quite a few!

There are some I’ll never forget, some I wish I could forget — and some I’m still hoping to experience…

So today I present my top five picks of parties that I wish could be held every year in my own back yard, as it were, for my immediate attending pleasure.

For my first choice, there is simply no contest:

1) The Full Moon Party (Koh Phangan, Thailand)

This Full Moon Party is the bash to end them all. Upwards of 20,000 crowd the Haad Rin beach, on the southern tip of Koh Phangan, an island in the Gulf of Thailand. The party is so epic it has spawned imitators all around the world (especially in Thailand). There are people twirling fire sticks and jumping through fire hoops. Bars line the beach, and vast amounts of alcohol in plastic buckets fuels frantic dancing right through ‘till dawn — and beyond.

By the morning the survivors, usually the most party-savvy (or those who’ve paced their drinking), head off around the coast to start the after-party!

Everyone else falls into two categories:

  1. Those who made it home before they passed out, in which case they’ll have nothing worse than a hangover and the occasional burn mark as souvenirs.
  2. Those who collapsed on the sand mid-party. These unfortunates most likely will have been robbed of everything — including clothes. They face the unenviable task of getting home with no money, no car/bike keys, a raging headaches and a crippling sunburn. That, and the scorn of local taxi drivers, who tend to frown on naked passengers. (You only make this mistake once!)

And if this Full Moon bash is slightly too hard-core and crowded for your tastes, the enterprising organizers have come up with lesser parties for every week of the year: Black Moon, Half Moon, Blue Moon…along with the occasional Jungle Party scattered between.

Go there. Do it. Your liver will never be the same again!

TONY’S TIP: Don’t do drugs. Plain-clothed cops roam the beach, and have been known to try and sell drugs to unsuspecting tourists — and then arrest them if they agree to buy!

From one that’s free to all to one that’s recently become very hard to get to:

2) Burning Man (Black Rock Desert, Nevada)

Burning Man, a week-long event that pays tribute to radical self-expression, began as a bonfire ritual on the summer solstice. It is now so popular that it’s running a lottery system to see who gets to go. If you get the chance, it has to be one of the best New-Age festivals around: a mix of art, performance, story-telling, meeting, camping and surviving, all under the relentless desert sun (or the freezing desert night!).

Oh, did I mention? It’s in the desert.

Self-sufficiency is the key. Leave no trace. Meet up with like-minded, free spirited people from all over the world, and burn a gigantic man-shaped bonfire with them. Then cover yourself with body paint and go do something arty.

Sounds like heaven, eh?

Alas, my friends at Technomadia (a pair of technology-enable nomads) couldn’t get tickets this time, despite being an organizational hub for a whole “sect” of attendees over the last few years. As far as I know, the policy of offering tickets via lottery has been universally hated, and is under review.

The festival starts the last week in August, and the namesake (giant burning man) event takes place on the Saturday night before Labor Day.

And now to one that’s still just about doable:

3) Glastonbury! (Glastonbury, Somerset, UK)

Depending on your point of view, the Glastonbury Festival can be seen as one of the most famous music festivals in the world, with five days of top acts for every taste … or a deafening week camping in a muddy field in England!

I had to include it, because (to my shame) I’ve still never been — despite the fact it’s held less than 15 miles from the house where I grew up! Yup — I lived close enough to smell the unwashed hairy hippies! (I’ve been to the Full Moon Party on Koh Phangan but not to the Glastonbury Festival — now is that displaced, or what?)

But tickets are very expensive, and you’ve got to be quick. I happened to be home visiting someone in hospital on the day the tix went on sale in 2011. There was a whole ward full of people sitting there on laptops, hitting the refresh button constantly, trying to buy them — only three (out of 14) managed it!

Those lucky few contended with the notoriously poor English weather, which turned last year’s festival into a filthy quagmire — but I expect they were far too stoned to care!

TONY’S TIP: Get in FREE as a volunteer litter picker. It’s getting tougher though — you have to join a festival staff agency and convince them you actually plan to pick up litter, instead of doing what most of the staff end up doing: watching bands and getting high!

Moving right along…is it cheating to have another one from Thailand? Well if it is, I don’t care, as this one is unmissable:

4) Songkran (Thailand)

The Thai New Year festival, known as Songkran, is the most fun you’ll ever have with your clothes on. (Anyone who’s traveling in Southeast Asia, hurry up: it’s held this week, April 13-15.) Just don’t expect your clothes to survive the ordeal! This country-wide water fight comes to a head in the cramped city streets, where tourists and locals stand toe to toe — and try to drown each other! Traffic snarls every road, and from the back of every truck buckets of water are being flung.

The year I attended (I was living in Bangkok), I drove up to a policeman and threw a water balloon right in his face — the only time I’ve done that in my life! You gotta watch out for those cops, though — they’re usually packing…super-soakers! The long squirt of the law should never be underestimated; not least because these guys have more practice at firing!

Drinking is a big part of the fun in the touristy areas of Bangkok, as is the throwing of flour, food coloring, dyes and pastes of many kinds — hence the clothes warning. But even if you ruin your clothes, believe me, it’s worth it!

And then, there is the granddaddy of them all…

5) The celebration to mark the end of the Mayan Long Count calendar (Belize)

This has to be most exclusive event on the planet. Attend this year’s Maya Winter Solstice in Chaa Creek, Belize, and you’ll own ultimate bragging rights — it’s as simple as that.

Brangelina wedding? Pah, there’ll be another one. Maybe two.

Meteorites will strike, popes will die, entire nations will rise in triumphant revolution, and then fall — again and again and again.

But the end of the Mesoamerican/Maya/Mayan Long Count calendar will only ever happen once, because a) the first one has taken 5,200 years, and b) there’s no ancient Mayans left to do another count. So even if you live to be a million, you still won’t get to see this party again!

Not to mention, the world is going to end.

Joke! In fact, no one knows what the end of the long count signified to the Mayans — other than it being time to buy a new calendar. There is NO apocalyptic event prophesied in their culture, and never was. But it does make you think — just why did they pick the winter solstice, 21st December 2012, for the end of their five-millennia-long cycle?

Don’t you want to know? I do!

So that’s where I’ll be. Although I may have to sell my house to afford the ticket. And…I don’t own a house.

D’oh.

So what have I missed out, eh? This is a great big world full or parties and festivals — what are your favorites? And why are they so great?

Let me know in the comments!

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s Random Nomad interview with author Wendy Williams (she recently contributed a popular guest post to The Displaced Nation).

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img: MorgueFile

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