Friday, May 28, 2010

The Two Most Popular Expat Locations

There are two places in the world that most expats live: in a Bubble or in Reality.

It can be wonderful to live in a bubble. In a bubble, everything counts on your perception, rather than the reality.

This can be good or bad, depending on your imagination. You can imagine your boss likes you. You can imagine your neighbor loves your new wind chime. You can imagine you're fluent in German.

But at some point, if you stay in a foreign country long enough, your bubble will break.

Often, this happens when you learn the language, know the customs, befriend a local, or have to visit the unemployment office.

My bubble broke last year. And then I realized. This is my real life. And three years had gone by since I noticed I was living it.

Now when my neighbor says, “Baden used to be a nice town but now it’s trashy, dangerous, and filled with foreigners,” I no longer smile and nod.

Reality is hard that way.

Even though I moved to Switzerland four years ago, today I’m really living here.

Where do you live? In a bubble? In reality? Which do you prefer?

Next week on Writer Abroad: expat author extraordinaire, Stephen Clarke, talks about the vast conspiracy that is the publishing industry and how to crack it. Hint: put your books in a shopping cart and push them around Paris.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

What I've Learned from Living Abroad

Similar to the story of The Lost Girls, at the age of 28, I took a scary life leap that involved quitting my hard-earned copywriting job, selling my house and car, leaving family and friends, and consuming lots of high fructose corn syrup to help me deal with equal doses of doubt: Was I throwing away everything I was supposed to want in life just to live in country where stores weren’t even open on Sundays?

Thankfully, I can safely say that no, it was all worth it. Living abroad has given me the space I needed to redefine myself without the pressure to keep up with the Joneses, to live the American dream.

Four years after moving to Switzerland, here are a few other things I’ve learned:

I’ve learned that it's ok to take an hour for lunch.

I’ve learned that I’m really good at smiling and nodding.

I’ve learned that no matter how long I live here I’m still going to crave Kraft Mac and Cheese.

I’ve learned that a velour suit is street wear in America and sleepwear in Switzerland.

I’ve learned that footwear is a great way to determine where someone is from.

And I’ve learned that I’m not 25% Italian, 25% Polish, 20% English, 12.5% Danish, 10.5% Swedish, and 7% German. I’m 100% American. My Nikes prove it.

If you are living or have lived abroad, what has the experience taught you?

Friday, May 21, 2010

Writer Interview: The Lost Girls

The subtitle to the just released travel memoir, The Lost Girls, is: Three friends, four continents, one unconventional detour around the world.

Here's the premise: The authors, Jennifer Baggett, Holly C. Corbett, and Amanda Pressner, quit their New York media jobs at age 28 to travel the world for a year, hoping to discover if management positions, mortgages, and marriages were really what they wanted out of life.

Hmm. Sound familiar?

It did to me. As someone who also quit a high-stress, high-paced job at age 28, I wondered some of the same things they did. Namely, is this what I really want in life? Or is this what I should want? And who the heck am I without my business card? I had never been out of the office long enough to find out. Until I moved abroad.

Today, the three authors join Writer Abroad to talk about their journey, their path to publishing, and what they've learned about themselves, the United States, and the world in the process.

Amanda, during your year “off” you did a lot of freelance writing, often making sure you were available to editors in New York during business hours, even from the South American rainforest. And Holly, you talk about the fact that being overscheduled is almost a bragging right. Do you think Americans of our generation are so concerned with the title on their business card that they forget to discover who they are without it?

It’s definitely hard to not get caught up in the frenetic race to climb the corporate ladder or to achieve a certain title by a certain age. Especially in New York when one of the first questions people ask each other when they meet (after “How much do you pay in rent?”) is “What do you do for a living?” Eventually we find ourselves spending so much time punching the clock that we lose sight of our other skills and interests or other facets of our lives that are important to us. Former “titles” we used to hold so dear such as soccer player, dancer, film buff or musician often get cast to the side, trumped by our job titles and salaries. For us, traveling is the ultimate way to remind ourselves who we really are as people not as professionals. And suddenly we found ourselves answering even more important questions, like “What countries have you visited” and “Where are planning to travel next?” The latter is currently up in the air for The Lost Girls, but it’s a three way tie between Ireland, Istanbul and Tibet!

I think a lot of readers of this website were originally like me: scared to give up their “secure” job in the U.S. for an international adventure abroad. What would you say to people trying to make such a decision?

We left New York wondering if we were committing career suicide (who leaves these dream jobs after just five or six years?), but we were shocked to find that going on the road actually seems to make us more valuable to our employers. Maybe that's because all three of us choose to put the trip front and center on our resumes, rather than attempting to bury it at the bottom or gloss over the gap during our interviews. Instead, we highlighted the career-related aspects of our time away--the fact we'd created a website that ended up winning or getting nominate for a few awards, interviewed dozens of women worldwide about the issues that they faced, wrote articles for various print and online publications during the trip, blogged for World Nomads travel insurance company once we arrived in Sydney.

Of course, we have to give the then-booming economy a little credit for ensuring that we found our career footing again so quickly--there seemed to be jobs aplenty back in summer 2007!--but our employers certainly seemed to respect that we'd taken a major risk and came back to New York refreshed, energized and ready to start working again. Aside from answering the question "But what if you decide to leave for another adventure?" (We assured our hiring managers that one global circumnavigation was enough for now!), we rarely experienced raised eyebrows or negativity from potential future bosses. Most people seemed to find the idea of the trip intriguing and it was (and still is!) one of our best interview icebreakers. has over 400,000 subscribers and around 7 million Americans are currently living abroad. Why do you think so many people are looking for an escape?

I think we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to achieve certain goals in a very specific and linear time frame – graduate high school, go to college, score an internship, parlay that into a first job, get promoted as fast as you can, get married, have kids, etc – that we often forget to slow down and simply enjoy the journey in whatever order and pace works for us. And the busier and more stressed out we get, the harder it gets to take time for reflection or relaxation until we eventually burn out. And since traveling is often equated with self discovery and escape, I think it’s often what we turn to when faced with adversity or seeking a major change. We’ve always said that the Brits and Aussies have the right idea with their Gap Year and “Walkabout” and we hope that more Americans will follow suit. Maybe we can even develop our own name for our great escape!

Before you went on the trip, did you think about writing a book based on it? Or when/how did the idea come about and since this is a website for aspiring writers and travelers, can you talk about the path from idea to finished book?

During the trip we’d occasionally fantasized about someday writing a book about our adventures, but that was really just a pie-in-the-sky notion we didn’t pursue while traveling. As writers by trade, Holly and Amanda did pen a few pieces for magazines while we were on the road–while I (Jen) parlayed my TV background into become an impromptu photo journalist. But aside from writing the occasional articles and maintaining our travel blog, we didn’t want to squander our time on the road holed up in internet cafes working—we wanted to have authentic experiences and adventures exploring the countries we’d traveled so far to visit.

Although in the end, our blog was what inspired our travel memoir. What started out as a creative means for staying in touch with loved ones soon became a matter of public interest. Apparently, our family and friends weren’t the only ones reading our website. Thanks to the viral nature of the web, news of The Lost Girls travelogue ( started to spread—first in the US, then overseas –a soon, tens of thousands of readers began logging on to live vicariously through our journey. Once we provided a dedicated email address for correspondence, readers wrote to us directly, sharing how our stories had inspired them and even changed the direction of their lives.

As luck would have it, a few agents and one editor at a major publishing house stumbled across our blog while we were still traveling, and wrote to express interest in maybe turning our tales into a book. Of course, no one actually wanted to meet with us until we’d composed a polished book proposal, so the three of us holed up for an entire month at Holly’s family’s house in Syracuse to put together our 60-page document together. Once we’d completed the proposal (including three sample chapters), we found an agent whom we really trusted at Writer’s House, and he managed to sell our book to HarperCollins. The memoir of our round-the-world journey hit shelves on May 11th 2010, and is called The Lost Girls: Three friends. Four continents. One unconventional detour around the world.

Was it hard to write the book as a team? How did you organize yourselves?

Figuring out how to cover all the countries we’d visited, the myriad experiences we had on the road and divide up the chapters equally among three different women was no easy task. Especially since we were faced with the challenge of meshing our individual and collective experiences into a single memoir, which took quite a lot of planning. Everything seemed to take much longer because we had to coordinate with each other whenever we wanted to change an angle or write about a place we hadn’t originally decided upon in our outline.

On the upside, it forced us to be more organized since we had to map out exactly how we saw the book being organized right from the start. And having two other co-authors to be accountable kept us motivated to stick to our deadlines – and to be as honest as possible when sharing our stories.

We always joked that taking a trip around the world together was the best preparation for writing a book together –and likely the only factor that got us through the tough times where writers block struck or we had to rearrange our chapters. In the end, writing a memoir together has made our friendships even stronger and we feel so incredibly lucky to have shared not one, but two, life changing experiences together.

What’s the main lesson you hope readers to take away from The Lost Girls?

We live in unique times where women in developed nations like our own have an abundance of choice (a luxury to be sure) but given the freedom to blaze our own path for one of the first times in history, which way do we turn? Every woman must decide for herself whether to take the road of marriage, or motherhood, or career. Or all three. Or something else entirely. Our grandmothers and mothers worked hard to get us to this place, but there is no roadmap that helps us learn how to trust our guts so we can make the right decisions for us as individuals that will ultimately leave us feeling happy, free, and fulfilled. We hope that after reading The Lost Girls, young women will understand that they're not alone in their uncertainty, and that it’s okay for them to figure out exactly who they are on their own timeline. For us, the exploration process involved travel, with two friends at our sides.

What’s next for the Lost Girls? Have you found yourselves?

Right now, we’re in the midst of celebrating the release of our book and continuing to grow and expand our readership of our website, (we now have an editorial staff of over 15 and counting). And while all three of us have accepted job offers and are working in offices again, we’ve vowed to travel as a trio once a year for the rest of our lives, so it won’t be long before we’ll be plotting our next getaway together. As for whether we’ve found ourselves, well…the answer to that question is probably best summed up from one of the last sections of our book:

Back when we first starting calling ourselves The Lost Girls, a tongue-in-cheek nickname we invented long before we ever stepped outside the country, we sort of assumed that the goal of the journey would be to get un-lost. We thought the trip would yield the kind of earth-shattering, value-bending, shout it-from-the-mountaintop epiphanies that would reveal exactly who we should become as women. Our goal was to board a plane and get resolution. We wanted to be found.

Looking back on it now, we might have been putting a teensy bit too much pressure on the universe—and ourselves. Because as we’d discover (after several years and a 542 page book), our journey to self-discovery wouldn't begin or end in a particular destination—it had actually started the very moment we decided to take a risk and take off. Because, at the end of the day, and the road, the journey was never really about finding ourselves—it was simply to learn how to embrace being lost.

For more about The Lost Girls, visit their website. To order a copy of the book and support Writer Abroad in the process, click here.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Guest Post: Traveling with Children

by Philip Graham

Travel is rife with unpredictability, and if traveling with family, particularly children, is unpredictability squared, then writing about traveling with family might be described as unpredictability cubed. It's one thing to attempt to describe the Other you've encountered in a foreign countrythe person or event that reflects something about you that you didn't know was thereand it's quite another to write about the emotionally intimate Other that is your spouse or your child: theyre the ones who will follow you home and read the account youve written that you hope balances a need for privacy with a swipe at the truth.

The mix of travel writing with family can also be a multiplier of difficulty because, just as you might find yourself morphed into a slightly altered version of yourself, so too do your traveling companions return out of synch. The challenge for you as a writer is not only to understand that change, but also to realize that it offers a map to the people you thought you knew before anyone ever left home.

I have two exemplary memories of my son and daughter from my familys years of travel.

The first is from when I lived in a small village in West Africa with my wife, the anthropologist Alma Gottlieb, and our then six-year-old son Nathaniel. That summer in 1993, Alma was conducting research on the baby rearing practices of the Beng (an ethnic group in Ivory Coast that shed been studying since 1979), I was working on my first novel, and Nathaniel faced his first immersion in a foreign world.

Normally a shy boy, the new experience of ranging about the village in search of fun with a score of new friends transformed him into a far more adventurous child than hed been before. While he began learning the language, Nathaniel helped build miniature structures out of left-over mud bricks from a recently built nearby hut, tried more new foods than hed ever given a chance back home, and drew on a sketch pad for hours at a time in an attempt to express his wonder at this new cultural world.

But I didnt know how deeply the village had entered him until the morning I discovered Nathaniel at the edge of our host familys compound with a machete in hand, clearing away the brushjust the way the villagers would periodically do. He hadnt asked to attempt this job, hed simply picked up that machete and, leaning over, circled around the compound, swinging the blade before him in a spot-on imitation of the loping style of the adults who usually performed this task. Though we would only be living in the village for a summers three months, I could imagine the path into Beng culture that Nathaniel would follow if we were to stay longer. And by the time we returned to the U.S., Nathaniel had long since shed his once clingy self.

My second exemplary memory comes from a sabbatical stay in Portugal in 2006-07, when Alma and I brought our then eleven-year-old daughter Hannah along to live for a year in Lisbon (Nathaniel, by this time, was in his second year of college). While I wrote and Alma began new anthropological fieldwork among Cape Verdeans living in Lisbon, our sixth-grader Hannah plunged into a far more immersive engagement with the culture when she attended two different Portuguese schools.

The first school soon proved itself a trauma-filled nightmare, a perfect storm of unsympathetic teachers, raucous students, and relentless bullies. Hannah, a normally vibrant and social child, was so shaken that she began to turn quietly inward. Alarmed at our normally vibrant childs unexpected alteration, Alma and I slipped into fourth gear and found a far better school for her, one that we learned was famous for its pedagogical empathy. Ten percent of attending students were disabled in some way visually or physically, and I suspect we were able to enroll Hannah there mid-semester because her foreign status and shaky Portuguese were considered disabilities.

I remember visiting Hannahs school one spring day for a special performance. The students were studying the short stories of the well-known writer Gonçalo Tavares, and because he was a friend of mine, I had pulled some gentle strings and hed graciously agreed to visit Hannahs school and give a brief reading from his work. A surprise awaited Gonçalo: the students had worked up a few of his stories into performances. I sat with Alma in the auditorium and watched our daughters moment arrive to take center stage and speak her part in Portuguese, her words fluid, her accent locally impeccable. It was hard to imagine that our child was American, her first language English. Hannah's grades had risen to the best in her class, and it seemed as if the cost of her early struggles had vanished.

That year in Lisbon, I found myself writing not one but two travel books, accounts that offered larger glimpses of my two children than I'd originally intended and a greater understanding of who they were as growing human beings.

One book was a second volume of an African memoir Parallel Worlds—that Alma and I had first co-written years ago. This second volume features, among the multiple story lines of village life, Nathaniels six years old adventures at the time. And while I was chipping out a portrait of our grown son's long-ago village incarnation and transformation, the periodic dispatches I was writing at the same time for McSweeneys Internet Tendency increasingly featured Hannah.

Two family realities jostled within me as I wrote that year, my son of the past teaching his African friends how to whistle (and they in turn teaching him how to catch the fleeing chicken that was destined for dinner), while my present day daughter learned the subtleties of grammar and, as she began to enter adolescence before our surprised eyes, the grammar of make-up.

In a downtown Lisbon cafe I wrote and rewrote the fraught scene of the madman of the village kneeling before a small wooden box--one of his hoarded treasures--and stripping it to frayed sticks with a broken scissors while sing-songing the name of our son. Though I wrote that scene of Africa from the safe distance of fourteen passed years, I was composing my Lisbon dispatches in real time and could only imperfectly observe the still unfolding narrative of Hannah's deepening journey into the culture, and her desire be accepted by her thin Portuguese girlfriends. My wife Alma and I may have arrived in Portugal with a child, but we found ourselves being left behind by a newly turned twelve year old daughter as she traveled farther into the land of adolescence, as she embraced a different kind of foreignness and eventually stumbled at its unexpected consequences.

Our culture lies to us, with its quiet insistence on the ultimate primacy of the physical world. "How was your trip?" a friend asks, the question posed in the past tense because that is the way the assumptions of our language are structured: since you have returned, you are no longer there, any GPS system can prove that easily enough. But any trips fundamental revelations settle into your present moments, and that foreign country may indeed still be over there, but now it's inside you, too.

For our son Nathaniel, he transferred his village escapades to his American friendships, and never again allowed his shy side to take the lead. For Hannah, her new bi-lingual and cosmopolitan self and her hard-won triumph over what at first overwhelmed her has made our daughter far more mature than her actual years. As for my wife and me, we have been brought to a more humbling understanding of how travel's unpredictability can shape ones children and set them on a trajectory that will become the rest of their lives.


Philip Graham is the author of two short story collections, The Art of the Knock and Interior Design, and the novel How to Read an Unwritten Language. His most recent book is The Moon, Come to Earth, an expanded edition of his series of dispatches from Lisbon for McSweeneys, now published as a paperback original. He is also the co-author, with Alma Gottlieb, of a memoir of Africa, Parallel Worlds; the second volume of this memoir, Braided Worlds, will be published in 2011. Graham teaches at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His short essays on the craft of writing can be found at

Monday, May 17, 2010

Wigs in France, grants for writers, and fun footnotes

It's been a bit since Writer Abroad posted a few links to some things she likes (but not "like" in the Facebook sense...that she much so that she no longer has likes and interests--at least on Certain Internet Sites).

Oh well.

Here we go:

Fantastic essay about getting a wig in France from writer Suzanne White in The New York Times Magazine.

Speaking of France, A Year in the Merde author Stephen Clarke has a new book, 1000 Years of Annoying the French.

Great essay in Brevity by Lisa Gill on the craft of writing, fun footnotes included.

If you're a writer and don't yet know about Mira's list, be sure to check out her post on "Big Fellowships and Grants for Writers". Yes, money for writers. You heard me right. Money, writers, in the same sentence. Yes.

And finally, this list wouldn't be complete without a little shameless self-promotion. Last week, Writer Abroad was featured over on in the article, "Have Resume, Will Travel," by Michelle Goodman. And yes, Europe really does teach you how to relax.

Coming up later this week on Writer Abroad:

Wednesday: Author Philip Graham reflects on traveling (and writing) with children.

Friday: The authors of the newly released travel memoir, The Lost Girls, share their wisdom on writing, publishing, and traveling the world.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Decision to Move Abroad in 10 Easy Steps

Resigning from a job, selling a house and/or car, and leaving family and friends to move abroad can be scary. But I did it in 2006. And now I’m sharing the steps (in the order that they appeared) that led me to work up the nerve to move abroad:

  1. Get fateful email from husband: “I got the offer.”
  2. Google, “Should I move abroad?”
  3. Eat lots of high fructose corn syrup.
  4. Google, “Living abroad.”
  5. Toss. Turn. Repeat.
  6. Wear sunglasses to cover up bags under eyes.
  7. Remember who is president (2006).
  8. Repeat #7. A lot.
  9. Go to work. Stare at vacation balance. Shake head.
  10. Realize looking back and thinking, “what if?” would suck.

If you’re living abroad, what made you decide to go? If you’re not, what’s holding you back?


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