A writer working abroad.
For writers living abroad can be a rich experience, some have made their names talking about their unusual adventures and encounters.
When people look at my CV, maybe one thing they notice immediately, is that I am a British person living in France. Ok, these two countries are not too far from one another, I am not living in a far more exotic country like Thailand. None the less people ask, has living in a foreign country influenced my writing? There are quite a number of authors who have written books about France and in particular the culture shocks they have experienced. I have read two books of this kind “A Year in the Merde” by Steven Clarke and “Almost French” by Sarah Turnbull. I suppose I was interested because I wanted to see if another person’s experiences echoed my own. To write a book like this I imagine a certain amount of exaggeration is necessary, as well as creative license. Living abroad is not just about wild experiences. I did connect with somethings that arose in both books, however. A long while back, when fairly new to France I remember feeling incredibly isolated at a dinner party I had been invited to by a French friend, a sentiment that features in Sarah Turnbull’s book.
I have lived in two foreign countries, the first being Austria, when I was a bit younger than I am today.
Austria at that time was a place fertile for ideas for writing about. It was the place where I made my first albeit unsuccessful attempts at writing. I went to live with my then girlfriend, who was Austrian, and who lived in a house which was attached to parent’s house. She had a young son by a previous relationship and was involved in a constant battle with her parents, who assumed the responsibility of bringing the child up, often acting more like parents rather than grandparents. Ina short time I learned a lot about the intricacies of Austrian families and came to the conclusion it was only apt that Freud had originated from Austria. I remember clearly one of my ex-Austrian girlfriends first words to me “I’ve just come from seeing my shrink” saying these words as if she was boasting that she had a “shrink”. My experiences in Austria, really left my mark on me.
The village where I lived was divided strictly into two distinctive parts. There were the original villagers. The women wore dour black clothes, head scarf’s, some rode bicycles and would scowl at me as they rode past. I felt decidedly the outsider and their looks told me “what are you doing here, you are not welcome”.
The other part of the village was made up of younger families who had bought houses on a new housing estate, on the outskirts of the village. These people mostly were professionals and had jobs in Vienna. I used to teach their children English. There was even a woman from Wales, whose son was a student of mine. He led a chant of “Englisch ist dumm“ (English is stupid). Where had he come up with such a notion? In fact his German father was responsible. So Mother trying to get her son to speak English…the father discouraging him.
I had other experiences. On a train coming back from teaching a lesson, in a suburban new town, the trains which normally stopped and started with a regimental precision, was decidedly lodged at a station. Suddenly two soldiers armed, got on the train and demanded papers. I am from a country where (well in the past) guns are not that much in evidence and secondly it is not obligatory to carry papers. I had to explain I had no form of identification, this after they had searched me (failing to check a big bag I had at m feet containing books). I was within a whisker of being escorted off the train, thankfully one of the soldiers did not consider me to be of any consequence. I assumed the Austrian president had been shot, but no…a local supermarket had been robbed. On the same train, on another journey I was to be accosted by some Nazi youth, chanting “zieg heil” and “Ausländer raus“, while upsetting some of the immigrant workers, who joined the train as it entered Vienna from the suburbs. I discretely hid my British newspaper, as a scuffle broke out and then the driver had to cool things down.
Living in Austria had a big impact on me. It could be argued this being the result of living abroad for the first time, however it was very different experience to what I had experienced before and the village and its occupants, definitely influenced some of my writing long after. When I repatriated in my country of birth, I found it hard to resettle. I was always going on about my experiences in Austria, I must have bored many a person, but I couldn’t help myself. I split up with my Austrian girlfriend. The warning signs were there…when I arrived to go and live with her…she arrived late…held up by a funeral procession.
Funerals were fascinating to me. There was the big band playing somber music, a big turnout following the band. An absolute nightmare, if you got caught behind, traffic would well up. Then there were the graveyards. It seemed like if you were rich, you would have a gravestone the size of a king size bed, as a way of saying when I was alive I had money and was prosperous.
I went back to Austria, after a Christmas, to take in the new year celebrations. One tradition seemed to run naked and roll around in the snow (we were staying up a mountain, so there was lots of snow at that time) and then run back into the house and jump in a hot bath.
Memories like these stay with you forever, a writer abroad can gather a lot material for their books…
Some quotes by famous writers, who have been through the living abroad experience.
“You’re an expatriate. You’ve lost touch with the soil. You get precious. Fake European standards have ruined you. You drink yourself to death. You become obsessed by sex. You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see? You hang around cafés.”
“Life might be difficult for a while, but I would tough it out because living in a foreign country is one of those things that everyone should try at least once. My understanding was that it completed a person, sanding down the rough provincial edges and transforming you into a citizen of the world.”
“What I found appealing in life abroad was the inevitable sense of helplessness it would inspire. Equally exciting would be the work involved in overcoming that helplessness. There would be a goal involved, and I liked having goals.”
Francis H Powell is the author of Flight of Destiny.