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Claiming My Place in the World by Jennifer S. Alderson

Claiming My Place in the World by Jennifer S. Alderson

I thought I was so cool, handing over twenty-five Euros to a freshly washed junkie I’d met in a Red Light District coffeeshop, instead of one of the smellier ones lurking on the poorly-lit bridges crisscrossing the canals. As soon as he pocketed the cash, he scurried outside and charged down the street. I hurried after him, half-running to keep up. When he darted into a darkened alleyway, I froze and my guard went up. Was he robbing me, or worse? Before I could run, he’d already returned with a beat-up BMX mountain bike in one hand and a broken bike lock in the other. He passed me the handlebars and disappeared into the night.

Within minutes of my first cycling adventure on that crappy two-wheeler, I got knocked over by two huge Irish guys who’d unwittingly stepped into the bike lane. I’d only been in Amsterdam for a few days and was so fresh to the city I apologized to them.

When I later learned a true Dutchwoman would have responded with a string of expletives, I remember being furious with myself for not reacting ‘properly’.

It was the same when I lived in Darwin, Australia. Within a week, I was taking the piss out of the locals, loudly expressing my love of barbecue for lunch and dinner, and happily referring to the then Prime Minister by his derogatory nickname of ‘Johnny’. Locals often gave me funny looks; fellow expats simply nodded and asked for another charcoal-grilled sausage.

In Nepal, I scoffed at tourists using utensils instead of their right hand to eat, and laughed openly at those freaked out by the rather large insects and rodents scurrying about.

Whenever I move to a new country or city, I experience an almost primal urge to fit in. I can’t help but adopt local customs as my own, usually within days of arrival. I get edgy and irritated when people want to know what it’s like ‘back home’. I always have to bite my tongue, resisting the impulse to ask what they mean, this is home for now.

I’ve traveled through thirty countries and lived in three. For several years, I considered my backpack to be my best friend. I’ve obviously contracted a serious case of wanderlust. So why this desperate desire to assimilate?

If anything, my extensive travels have amplified this deep-seated need to belong, to feel as if I am a part of something – a stained glass class, volunteer organization, kayaking group, Frisbee team, or whatever tickled my fancy at the time. With hindsight I now realize my endeavors were a way of justifying my presence and claiming every new city as my own.

I did eventually buy a Dutch-style ‘grandma bike’ from a proper shop. After many months of searching, I found a decent place to live. I did most of my grocery shopping at the Albert Cuyp Market behind my apartment and spent my afternoons biking along the Amstel River or through the small fishing villages of Marken and Volendam. I did my best to befriend any and every Dutch person I came in regular contact with. And after a long year of intensive Dutch language classes, I was able to speak it fairly fluently. Despite the fierce competition, I was admitted into the (then Dutch language) Master’s degree program in Museum Studies at the University of Amsterdam. I was doing everything I could think of to root myself and set the foundation for my new life.

Yet even after living in Amsterdam for thirteen years – eight as a naturalized Dutch citizen complete with passport – I’m very aware that my Dutch is heavily accented, I don’t really get Amsterdammers’ cynical humor, and I don’t know most of the cultural icons of my husband’s childhood. My son will probably never live in – or really understand – the United States of America, the country I spent my formative years in, the land that shaped me.

Every time I think, now I’m one of them, a shop clerk or waitress will ask, “Where do you come from, South Africa? England? You have such a cute accent.” Or even more painful, “You’re Dutch is pretty good. My brother-in-law / co-worker / bus driver has lived here ten years longer than you and still can’t speak it.” Though it’s meant a compliment, remarks like these always deflate my ego and remind me that, no matter how perfect my accent or choice of words sounds to my ears, I’ll always be that foreigner who speaks Dutch with a funny accent.

The worst question by far, the one that really cuts deep and used to ruin my day, is: “When are you going back?” Back to where, I want to ask, but never do. Realistically, in a city full of expats working temporary contracts at a plethora of international corporations and foreign consulates, it is not a strange question to ask.

Yet when I do go back to the States to visit family, all I do is moan about having to drive everywhere, the fatty, salty foods on offer and the absurd selection of products available at any store you step into. Seriously people, does the world really need ten variations of chocolate chip mint ice cream?

I have to ask for directions wherever I go because my favorite cafes and shops closed or moved years ago, leaving me without any reference points. My open disapproval of typical American behavior and attitudes leaves my husband wondering why I lived in the good ‘ole US of A for so long. At the end of every trip, I leave feeling as if I’m the ultimate stranger in a strange land, yet this was once my home.

For a long time these questions about my accent and plans for returning to the States really bothered me. Then all at once, the aggravation disappeared. Or I should say, one day I finally accepted that this is how it was going to be for the rest of my life. My newfound homeland will never really accept me as a local, even though I see myself as one.

This realization has allowed me to connect with other expats, people I avoided like the plague when I first moved here. I no longer feel the need to ‘prove’ myself by only befriending those born here.

Because I am an outsider, I recognize and appreciate many of the wonderful facets Dutch society has to offer and value them perhaps more than locals do, those who have grown up with socialized health care, short work weeks, dirt-cheap child care, and state-subsidized culture institutions. Those who don’t know what it’s like to live in another society with a different set of values and priorities may never be able to truly appreciate their own.

Perhaps it is impossible to assimilate completely, to lose that outsider’s perspective. Frankly, I no longer want to. Being aware of the beauty inherent to the Dutch way of living makes being here that much more special. Why would I want to let that go?

 

About the Author

Jennifer S. Alderson worked as a journalist and website developer in Seattle, Washington before trading her financial security for a backpack. After traveling extensively around Asia and Central America, she moved to Darwin, Australia, before finally settling in the Netherlands. There she earned degrees in art history and museum studies. Home is now Amsterdam, where she lives with her Dutch husband and young son.

Jennifer’s travels and experiences color and inform her internationally-oriented fiction. Her first novel, Down and Out in Kathmandu: adventures in backpacking, is a travel fiction adventure through Nepal and Thailand. The Lover’s Portrait: An Art Mystery, her second book, is a suspenseful ‘whodunit?’ which transports readers to wartime and present day Amsterdam.

Both books are part of an on-going stand-alone series following the adventures of traveler and culture lover, Zelda Richardson. The third installment in the series will be released in the fall of 2017.

On May 13, Jennifer will release a travelogue recounting her experiences as a volunteer and solo traveler in Nepal and Thailand, Notes of a Naive Traveler.

 

“The ride back to Kathmandu was comfortable and relaxing. There were more overturned trucks (the gas-powered ones seem to tip the most, I’m surprised there weren’t more explosions), goats being herded across the highway by ancient women, children playing games in traffic, private cars and buses alike pulling over in the most inconvenient places for a picnic or public bath, and best of all the suicidal overtaking maneuvers (or what we would call ‘passing’) by our bus and others while going downhill at incredible speeds or around hairpin turns uphill with absolutely no power left to actually get around the other vehicle.”

Trek with me through the bamboo forests and terraced mountaintops of Eastern Nepal, take a wild river rafting ride in class IV waters, go on an elephant ride and encounter charging rhinoceros on jungle walks in Chitwan National Park, sea kayak the surreal waters of Krabi and snorkel in the Gulf of Thailand. Join me on some of the scariest bus rides you could imagine, explore beautiful and intriguing temples, experience religious rituals unknown to most Westerners, and visit mind-blowing places not mentioned in your typical travel guides.

This travelogue also provides insight into the experience of volunteering at a Nepali school and living with a traditional family during a long-term homestay, where religion and ritual still rule daily life.

A touch of self-discovery is inherent to this kind of journey, one spurred on by a young woman’s attempt to figure out what she wants to do with her life.

Notes of a Naive Traveler is a must-read for those interested in learning more about – or wishing to travel to – Nepal and Thailand. I hope it inspires you to see these amazing countries for yourself.

Front cover artwork: ‘Folly in Divinity’, acrylic on canvas by Don Farrell

Release date: May 13, 2017

Pre-order Notes of a Naive Traveler: Nepal and Thailand now on iBooksKoboAmazon, Barnes & Noble NOOK and Smashwords.

Staying ‘In The Moment’: One Author’s Adventure in Travel Writing by Jennifer S. Alderson

Staying ‘In The Moment’: One Author’s Adventure in Travel Writing by Jennifer S. Alderson

So far this month we have been introduced to three travel memoir authors – Melissa Burovac, Jill Dobbe and Anne Hamilton – and their unique stories. It has been a pleasure reading about their journeys and how their travels influenced their writing.

The rest of the month I will feature articles by former and current expats and authors Beth Green, Annika Milisc-Stanley and Pamela Allegretto here on my blog.

Today I want to share my own story about how I came to write a travelogue. I hope you enjoy learning more about why I decided to take a break from fiction and publish excerpts from the travel journals I kept while traveling through Nepal and Thailand.

 

Staying ‘In The Moment’: One Author’s Adventure in Travel Writing

By Jennifer S. Alderson

My travels around this crazy planet have directly inspired the settings, plot twists and several of the characters in my Adventures of Zelda Richardson series. While writing these novels, my journals, emails to friends, and postcards sent home served as memory aids when describing the landscape and people I’d met on the road.

Enjoying a boat ride around Ao Thalin, Krabi Provence, Thailand.

Before making the plunge into fiction, I did try to use these same journals and emails as the basis for a full-blow travel memoir, yet failed miserably. My attempts to write about the events I had experienced after the fact in non-fiction story form, lost all of their spontaneity and (in my mind) their appeal. So I concentrated on writing fiction and regulated my travel journals to sources of background information about the settings of my travel thrillers and mysteries.

My soon-to-be-released travelogue, Notes of a Naive Traveler: Nepal and Thailand, only exists because I recycle. After cleaning out an overflowing closet, I stumbled upon a box full of old printouts, copies of the emails I’d sent to friends and family while in Nepal and Thailand. Most of the pages were crisscrossed with circles and notes I’d made while writing the first draft of Down and Out in Kathmandu.

On every corner and dusty square in the Thamel district of Kathmandu, Nepal you will find snake charmers.

These printouts were reference material I no longer needed. Because they’d only been printed on one side, I threw the lot onto our family ‘scrap paper pile’ which we use to make grocery shopping lists, or draw and paint on. While folding paper airplanes with my five-year-old son, my husband began reading the back sides of the pages, my old emails. When I got home that night, he asked why I had never published them. Just as many friends and family members have asked me over the years.

After much waffling, I re-read all of the emails and realized I could publish most them; only a few paragraphs were too personal. But the emails alone were about ten pages long; not much of a book!

Trekking with my volunteer group in Tharatum, Nepal.

So I went back through my journals and realized there was a lot of material I hadn’t used in Down and Out in Kathmandu that could be interesting to others who wanted to travel to Nepal and Thailand or volunteer abroad.  I threw together the first ten pages and sent it off to trusted beta readers. To my surprise, they were all quite positive and strongly recommended I finish it.

So I spent most of last winter piecing together excerpts from my journal and emails, then editing the mishmash of styles into one cohesive manuscript. By using direct, unaltered excerpts, I finally managed to keep the text ‘in the moment’, something I was unable to achieve the first-time around.

Tiger Caves Monastery, Krabi Provence, Thailand.

Honestly, I am incredibly nervous about having these excerpts from my personal journal out there. I admire travel writers who are able to unabashedly describe their stupid decisions, strange actions, and sometimes horrid behavior that the stress of long-term travel can bring out in a rational person.

Yet, I am also heartened by early readers’ (and even reviewer’s) positive remarks and interest in my journey. I hope those who read it are able to put themselves in my former self’s shoes and enjoy their time as a volunteer, as well as their trip around Nepal and Thailand.

May it inspire you to buy a backpack and see more of the world!

 

Notes of a Naive Traveler: Nepal and Thailand

“The ride back to Kathmandu was comfortable and relaxing. There were more overturned trucks (the gas-powered ones seem to tip the most, I’m surprised there weren’t more explosions), goats being herded across the highway by ancient women, children playing games in traffic, private cars and buses alike pulling over in the most inconvenient places for a picnic or public bath, and best of all the suicidal overtaking maneuvers (or what we would call ‘passing’) by our bus and others while going downhill at incredible speeds or around hairpin turns uphill with absolutely no power left to actually get around the other vehicle.”

Trek with me through the bamboo forests and terraced mountaintops of Eastern Nepal, take a wild river rafting ride in class IV waters, go on an elephant ride and encounter charging rhinoceros on jungle walks in Chitwan National Park, sea kayak the surreal waters of Krabi and snorkel in the Gulf of Thailand. Join me on some of the scariest bus rides you could imagine, explore beautiful and intriguing temples, experience religious rituals unknown to most Westerners, and visit mind-blowing places not mentioned in your typical travel guides.

This travelogue also provides insight into the experience of volunteering at a Nepali school and living with a traditional family during a long-term homestay, where religion and ritual still rule daily life.

A touch of self-discovery is inherent to this kind of journey, one spurred on by a young woman’s attempt to figure out what she wants to do with her life.

Notes of a Naive Traveler is a must-read for those interested in learning more about – or wishing to travel to – Nepal and Thailand. I hope it inspires you to see these amazing countries for yourself.

Front cover artwork: ‘Folly in Divinity’, acrylic on canvas by Don Farrell

Release date: May 13, 2017

Pre-order Notes of a Naive Traveler: Nepal and Thailand now on iBooksKoboAmazon, Barnes & Noble NOOK and Smashwords.

 

About the Author

Author photo by Fototeam.nl

Jennifer S. Alderson (1972) worked as a journalist and website developer in Seattle, Washington before trading her financial security for a backpack. After traveling extensively around Asia and Central America, she moved to Darwin, Australia, before finally settling in the Netherlands. Home is now Amsterdam, where she lives with her Dutch husband and young son.

Jennifer’s travels and experiences color and inform her internationally-oriented fiction.

Her first novel, Down and Out in Kathmandu: adventures in backpacking, is a travel fiction adventure through Nepal and Thailand.

The Lover’s Portrait: An Art Mystery, her second book, is a suspenseful ‘whodunit?’ which transports readers to wartime and present day Amsterdam.

Both are part of an on-going stand-alone series following the adventures of traveler and culture lover, Zelda Richardson. The third installment, another art-related travel thriller (working title: The Anthropologist) will be released in the Fall of 2017.

To read more interviews and feature articles, please click here.

 

Enjoy reading this post? Check back here Friday to read expat and TCK (Third Culture Kid) Beth Green’s contribution to my month long celebration of Fiction and Memoirs written by Expats and Travelers.

While you are here, check out Melissa BurovacJille Dobbe and Anne Hamilton’s fascinating contributions as well.

Write What You Know by Jill Dobbe

Write What You Know by Jill Dobbe

Jill Dobbe’s extensive experience as an international educator enriches her fascinating travel memoir, Kids, Camels & Cairo, a book I highly recommend to those considering taking the plunge and working overseas. It is quite an insightful read, as is this article ‘Write What You Know’.

 

Write What You Know

By Jill Dobbe

 

Hemingway said it and I write by it.

It’s the advice I remember receiving, and the reason I became a published author in my fifties. Upon returning to the U.S. after living and working as an international educator in India, where our circumstances were more topsy-turvy than ever, my husband proposed the idea of writing a book. “You should,” he remarked offhandedly. “You know a lot about working abroad in international schools and we have survived many crazy adventures for you to write about.”  He planted the seed that day and I have been writing memoirs and travel articles, ever since.

I am passionate about travel and education and found a way to combine the two into a lifestyle that suited me. I also learned that I have a passion for writing and as an international educator for twenty years now living in my seventh country, Honduras, I continue to have material inside me just waiting to be typed up. During our first 10 years when our two children were only babies, I kept journals so that someday they would know what our lives abroad had been like. Much later, I unearthed those journals and turned them into my first memoir. I relived our many journeys again as I read through my diaries typing them up into story form.

I’ve learned a great deal about writing, editing, and publishing since I wrote my first memoir. Even though I published traditionally, I was still completely naïve about the entire process. I knew about editing, but marketing was a whole new ballgame for me. Since that first so around, I also learned the importance of using beta readers for writing advice and other perspectives. It also goes without saying that good, strong editors are imperative. There are different types of editors who look at manuscripts differently. Sub-editors make articles accurate and readable, line-editors focus on the craft, and copy editors proofread for correct formatting of the text. Who knew there were so many types of editors? They all serve an important purpose however, and should be utilized before any author publishes.

My second book was published independently and I enjoyed the freedom of having my own timeline, while putting everything together myself-from the writing, to the cover design, to formatting the text, and choosing the font. I also felt I had a better grasp on the royalties I earned, and didn’t have to wait months to find out if I sold any books.

My memoirs are legacies I hope to leave my children one day. They are also informative travelogues that give educators wishing to go overseas, highlights of the lifestyle. Readers who like to travel can also learn about interesting and unusual places and sites around the world. My writings give a different perspective from that of a tourist, as living within the culture and experiencing life through the eyes of the locals is far different from visiting a place for a day or a week.

Writing personal memoirs can sometimes be difficult. It takes tenacity, honesty, and courage.  When I wrote about my years as an elementary principal in a Muslim school in Cairo, and the many negative issues I encountered with Islamic students, teachers, and parents, my husband was afraid I was going to be placed on an ISIS hit list. No one’s life is perfect, and memoir writers must include the good, the bad, and the ugly in order to be truly authentic. It takes a great amount of detail when describing the places, feelings, emotions, and events in someone’s life in order to make readers empathize with the author. In the narratives of my travels, I write honestly and openly about the different scary, ridiculous, dangerous, and crazy adventures I found myself in. I also chose those experiences that I thought readers would enjoy the most, be able to relate to, and learn something from.

For aspiring memoir writers, my advice is to get your story down on paper and keep writing. Enjoy the process and experience of writing your manuscript and don’t worry about who will read it, buy it, or publish it; you will find an audience. As you write keep in mind the following:

  1. Be truthful and genuine, even if it hurts.
  2. Include intriguing descriptions of your settings, with wobbly legs I crab-walked over the sharp rocks and squatted on sacred Mt. Sinai.
  3. Use vivid details and your senses when describing important scenes, the smell of sewage in the village invaded my nostrils and made me want to puke.
  4. Connect your feelings, thoughts, and emotions to the major events in your life, observing how animals were mistreated in Cairo will forever sadden me and tarnish my feelings toward Cairo.
  5. Include tension, plot, and character development; just like any novel, memoirs need these features in order to engage readers and keep them turning the pages until the very end.

“I decided that I would write one story about each thing that I knew about.”

~Ernest Hemingway

 

About the Author

Jill is an international educator and published author who writes about her experiences living and working in schools and countries around the world. She presently lives in her seventh country, Honduras, with her husband, Dan, and her Yorkie-Poo, Mickey. While working as an elementary principal, Jill also writes, reads, takes photos of the beautiful people and countries of Latin America, and muddles her way through the Spanish language. Jill loves her life as an international educator, and most days, feels like she is living her dream.

HERE WE ARE & THERE WE GO (2012) is Jill’s memoir/travelogue written about her family’s first ten years overseas and the humorous, crazy, and sometimes scary adventures they found themselves in.

KIDS, CAMELS & CAIRO (2016) is a book about Jill’s two years living and working in a Muslim school in Cairo, Egypt, where she lived and worked alongside Egyptians who taught her about their Islamic faith and reminded her when she was making another cultural faux pas.

She currently lives in her seventh country, Honduras. Learn more about Jill and her books on Facebook and Amazon.

 

Kids Camels and Cairo

A lighthearted read about my personal experiences as an educator abroad.

Traveling across the globe to work in an international school in Cairo, Egypt, was not exactly the glamorous lifestyle I thought it would be. I cherished my travels to the Red Sea, delighted in visiting the Pyramids, and appreciated the natural wonders of the Nile River. However, I also spent days without electricity or internet, was leered at by rude Egyptian men, breathed in Cairo’s cancerous black smog, and coaxed school work from rich, apathetic students.

Why the heck did I do it? So I could experience the unexpected, explore the extraordinary, and bask in the thrill of adventure!

Whether you’re an educator, a traveler, or just a curious reader, you will be astounded at this honest and riveting account of learning to live in an Islamic society, while confronting the frustrating challenges of being an educator in a Muslim school.

 

 

Enjoy this post? Check back Friday to read another travel-related article, this time by Anne Hamilton, author and founder of the Bhola’s Children Charity in Bangladesh.

While you are here, read the first post in this series, Melissa Burovac’s excellent article ‘How Traveling Abroad Turned Me into a Writer’.