At Home Abroad: Today’s Expats Tell Their Stories

– Author Interview by Sarah White – 

Who are today’s “expats”? What motivates people to leave their homes, family, and friends to immerse themselves in unfamiliar places, learn foreign languages, and get to know new people? Betsy and Mark Blondin, expats themselves, wanted to find out. That curiosity led to At Home Abroad: Today’s Expats Tell Their Stories, published in April 2016.


Betsy and Mark have lived in Mexico, Guatemala, South America and also in parts of Europe, working remotely—Betsy as a freelance editor, Mark in his technology company, Datawise Storage. Betsy had previously published the book, Migraine Expressions, a collection of images, poetry, and essays on that subject, which introduced her to the compilation approach.

I recently chatted with the Blondins about their experience. My questions appear in italics. Next week, I will post an excerpt from At Home Abroad.


Mark and Betsy Blondin

Mark and Betsy Blondin


How did the idea for this book come about?

Betsy: We’ve been nomads since 2010. The idea came from people we’ve met in our travels who have wonderful stories.

Mark: I was struck by a woman in her 80s we met in San Miguel de Allende. She started telling me about all the places she had visited. I was amazed. Then I asked her where she would like to go next—and she said, “If someone wanted to go to South Africa, I’d go right now.” That started my interest in expats’ stories. Then, as we lived in different places, we met person after person with fascinating stories.

We reached expat writers through expat sites and Craigslist. Responses started coming in from all over. We hadn’t expected it to be so international. It gelled that this story is not just about people from the United States—it’s about people from all over the world who have decided to adopt new homes. .

Betsy: That’s what we enjoyed most about putting the book together: getting a story from a person in Belgium who had resettled in Ireland, and so on.

You received 130 submissions, which you culled to 31 essays. How did you decide which to include?

Betsy: It was based on quality, interest, and a bit by country and age diversity. Originally we assumed it would be mostly retirees who had moved to other countries. That we got so many responses from young people was great. We didn’t edit a lot. We kept the stories as close as possible to their words and sent our edits to them for approval.

Was something revealed to you about the expat experience as you worked with these stories?

Betsy: Yes, that human beings are pretty much the same everywhere. That’s the big lesson—people sing to their babies, people laugh and cry. As you read these stories, that message gets reiterated. Another big message from the stories was, DON’T BE AFRAID. Just go for it. How can you lose?

Mark: People dream about going everywhere, and just never take the plunge. That came through in a lot of the stories. The other overriding theme was that you can be home in lots of different places.

Betsy: You carry it with you. It’s wherever you are. Home isn’t a place, it is in the person. That theme came across a lot.

You managed to work most places you lived.

Betsy: That’s worth thinking about. A lot of people who move abroad have money—they are the travelers who just stay longer in one place or another. Then there are the people who are working freelance and living abroad. It’s a different set-up. You are a part-time tourist. These are the “digital nomads.” People who don’t have money do it by working and scrimping so they can have the experience, which is what we did. That’s why we did it, absolutely.

Who do you see being helped by coming across this book?

Betsy: It isn’t a practical guide like “Move to Portugal, here are the steps.” There are plenty of books like that. It’s more about sharing personal experiences and perceptions.

Mark: I like the inspiration or motivational elements of it. There are so many people who say, “I wish I had done that”—

Betsy: —and here are 31 people who did it and show that you can. I hear from readers who say they really love the book and it has inspired them to travel or live in another place at least for a while.

Mark: People do want reassurance that “others have done this and I can too.”

Betsy: Some of the stories have practical information but it’s not the how-to book. That information is easily available. Readers are looking for confirmation, affirmation, of their idea.

The website for At Home Abroad is Click on “expat resources”for a listing of helpful expat websites!

The Blondins published their book using CreateSpace. It is available online through Amazon (where it has earned a 91% 5-star rating), iBooks, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, Ingram, and on Kindle as an eBook. So far, they’ve succeeded in getting the book into Powell’s Books in Seattle. The Blondins now draw on their self-publishing experience to help other authors publish their books.

To contact Mark and Betsy, send an email to


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The Extreme Beauty of January 21, 2017


By Gloria Peterson

I wish I could personally thank every man, woman, and child who participated in the worldwide Women’s March protests on January 21, the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration as 45th president of the United States.   I was home ill, but very much there in spirit.

Like many, my heart has been heavy since the election, and there have been things to grieve. Sadly, every time I hear the agenda of the right, I have a visceral response. I worry about losing my health insurance. This insurance saved my life when I needed treatment for cancer. I listen to the comparisons between Trump and Hitler and Mussolini.   I get scared, and I’m not even facing deportation. But on January 21 when an estimated two million people in the US alone demonstrated, along with numerous protests around the world, my spirit soared!

There was an un-named something special at work that day, which I am puzzling about. It has to do with our interconnectedness, compassion, and altruism. The protest was seemingly spontaneous, with information spread person to person and over the internet. There was no central organizer or organization. Energy was high, goodwill was abundant, and there were many acts of kindness in the huge crowds. People in wheelchairs and people with casts on their limbs participated. All were welcome, amid a wonderful inclusivity and diversity of people and causes.   People performed heroics to attend and say that the emerging political agenda is simply not acceptable.

In an attempt to name this “something special” quality, I’d like to speak of the writings and work of Jim Doty, a medical doctor who has done so much to promote compassion. There was also, in 2012, a stunning natural phenomenon relating to Laurence Anthony of South Africa. But Jim Doty first…


Doty writes of his life and his inspirational process in a book called Into the Magic Shop. At the age of 12, he was already well on his way to juvenile delinquency when he wandered into a magic shop and met an older and kindly woman named Ruth.   Ruth could see that there was something special about this boy and offered to teach him “real magic” and meditation techniques every day for six weeks.   This experience changed the trajectory of his life.  Ruth’s kindness, and the practice which he continued to do for many years, healed his heart.

While teaching at Stanford University, he realized that what he wanted to manifest most was a “world where people not only do no harm to one another, but reach out to help one another.” He sees us at the beginning of an “age of compassion.”   My take on the spirit of the marches is that compassion was a factor.

Doty believes we are collectively “on a journey of connection.”   He continues, “One act of compassion leads to another act of compassion; and so on across the globe.”   Compassion, he believes is an innate instinct. This instinct is present not only in humans but in many other species as well. There are many examples, from monkeys caring for each other when they are injured, to a dolphin who assisted in saving a beached humpback whale. This behavior is clearly present in toddlers.

Doty also believes that many have misinterpreted Darwin by implying that survival of the fittest means the strongest. But in fact, it is the survival of the kindest and most cooperative that ensures long-term species survival.   To Doty, there’s no shame in caring or in feeling another’s pain. He would say this is “beautiful” and what it’s all about.


The second theme that relates to the “something special” of this protest concerns Lawrence Anthony, author of  The Elephant Whisperer: My Life with the Herd in the African Wild. who died in 2012. He was born and died in South Africa. He loved nature and dedicated his life to conservation. He bought land for the 5,000-acre Thula Thula Game Reserve in Kwa Zulu Natal.


At one point, he was called upon to assist a conservation group. Nine elephants had escaped an enclosure and were about to be shot for wreaking havoc. Anthony rushed to the scene. He earned the reputation of “elephant whisperer” by communicating to the matriarch of the group with tone of voice and with body gestures, and he was able to prevent their being killed.

At the time of Lawrence Anthony’s death in 2012, something unusual and mysterious happened. Two herds of elephants traveled at least 12 hours to his home to pay homage to their friend. They stayed at Anthony’s home in Thula Thula Reserve for two days. After that, they left in solemn funeral-like procession to return to the bush. The question is, how did they know that this man had died?

The rabbi presenting at Anthony’s funeral said “…If ever there was a time when we can truly sense the wondrous interconnectedness of all beings, it is when we reflect on the elephants of Thula Thula. A man’s heart stops, and hundreds of elephants’ hearts are grieving. This man’s oh-so-abundantly loving heart offered healing to these elephants, and now they came to pay loving homage to their friend.”


I believe that the Women’s March was a gorgeous display of our interconnectedness.

Donald Trump’s policies, initiatives, words, and attitudes are wounding our very hearts. Many people now live in fear. We are reminded, again, of the horrors of Nazi Germany.

I believe that on January 21 people instinctively came together to help protect, nurture and care for one another.   Perhaps we had our pulse on the heartbeat of democracy, and it was weak and feeble. Or maybe it had stopped altogether and needed to be resuscitated. Or perhaps it was our own and other’s pain that we felt. We came together with great courage, conviction and goodwill toward our brothers and sisters. Perhaps our hearts yearn, like Jim Doty, to make our world a place “where not only do we do no harm to one another, but rather, reach out to help one another.”

I’m lacing up my work boots, for there’s much work to be done. I still wish I could hug the two-million-plus marchers and thank you for your courage and caring. I’m certain that a hug from all of you would permanently heal my ills, and I wouldn’t be so worried about my health insurance. You all have beautiful energy. Let’s stay in each other’s hearts as we do our collective work!

(c) 2017 Gloria Peterson.

Gloria is a nurse in Madison, Wisconsin and a member of the Society of Friends.

Images from Carly Brooke’s  post about Lawrence Anthony’s work on her blog, Featured Creatures, here.


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cool black electric hum


By Doug Elwell

Doug tells me, “this was inspired by a vivid dream the other night…In a departure from my usual p-o-v, I wrote it in the second person following your earlier lead with your Italy stories.”


You won’t see a bright white light at the end of a tunnel leading toward the heavens.

You won’t see your mother or father or sister or anyone you ever knew.

You won’t see the little puppy you barely remember from your childhood.

You stand at the edge of a hole with no circumference or depth.

You look into it and see only black.

You feel no movement of air.

You feel black coolness as before an open un-lit refrigerator in the dark of night.

You feel the cool wrap around you like a cocoon.

You feel goosebumps.

You taste sharp cold metal as if you touched your tongue to a raw steel bar.

You look again into the blackness of the hole.

You hear a hollow, vaguely ominous electric hum enfold the coolness.

You know it is eternal. It has no beginning or end.

You feel a lifetime of regret.

You cannot step back.

You resist that last step into the precipice yet there is no choice—that last step.

You stare into the cool black. A hand gently nudges your shoulder.

You drift into the infinite cool black electric hum.

© 2017 Doug Elwell

Doug Elwell grew up on the prairie of rural east central Illinois. His stories feature the characters, lore, and culture of that region. He explores the depth and richness of the inner lives of its people and communities. He is an occasional contributor to The Australia Times. His work has also appeared in The Oakland Independent, Ignite Your Passion: Kindle Your Inner Spark, True Stories Well Told, Every Writer’s Resource, Writers Grapevine, Ruminate and Midwestern Gothic literary journal. He has a Kindle novel, Charlie, available from the War Writer’s Campaign at Proceeds from purchases go directly to the campaign, a non-profit that helps re-integrate veterans into society following their deployments. Doug can be contacted via email at:

I like the question Doug’s piece raises about the truth of dreams. What do you think?


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Writing My Women’s March


Everyone is writing their Women’s March stories–Facebook posts and emails are coming in from friends, David Brooks is being his gassy annoying self, women like Elizabeth Word Gutting are rebutting. Men too. Here’s Ben Mathis-Lilley on Slate: David Brooks’ Column About the Women’s Marches Should Be Dumped in Acid and Set on Fire.

Frankly, all this is making it hard to find my own voice on my Women’s March experience.

I’m one of those people who “write to find out what I think” (to quote James Thurber.) I frequently start with a cluster map like this one. It helps me not only know what the ingredients for a piece will be, but organize in what order to bring them in.

I’m not there yet on writing about my Women’s March–for now, this will have to do.


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Pinney Library “Share the Life Lessons” Open Mic coming up–and more!


If you’re in the Madison area, please join me for an upcoming workshop or event!*

Next Wednesday (January 24) I and my fellow scribblers in the Pinney Library “Share the Life Lessons Write-in” will share some of what we’ve come up with on themes of ” What I wish someone had told me about…Money and Working… Getting an Education…Finding Love, Keeping Love Alive.” Join us for this Open Mic, 6:30-8:30 pm, Pinney Library, 204 Cottage Grove Road. 

On Monday morning my latest “upcoming workshops” email went out. I’ve got a new Guided Autobiography group forming up on Madison’s west side, a free “Start Writing Your Memoirs” 6-week workshop at the Central Library, and more. Check out the schedule on my website, here.

How I enjoy hearing from some of my past workshop participants who check in after receiving my email. Thank you for keeping in touch!

– Sarah White

And if you are far from Madison, but would like to join me in an online workshop, let me know. I could easily be convinced to add another memoir writing workshop to the schedule, meeting online.


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The Bank Book

By Doug Elwell


Truman Davis is one of those men who came into my life when I was just a boy and at the time I took him as I found him, a nice man. But over the years since, when he pops into my mind, which he does often, I smile.

If you made a movie about life in a small town and needed a character to play the banker, Truman would have been the obvious choice. He wasn’t the kind of man to stand out in a crowd, but that would have been okay with him. He always wore a smile and spoke a kind word. He was and is a gentle man. If he were to wear a hat, he would have tipped it upon meeting a lady on the sidewalk. He would have smiled broadly, said hello to everyone, even a young boy.

When I was eleven or twelve, I shined shoes at Josh’s barber shop on Saturday mornings for customers waiting for their weekly haircut. It was my first paying job; ten cents for a shine, fifteen for a shine and dye swabbed around soles and heels. Most gave me a tip of a nickel or dime and by noon my pocket bulged with coins. Most Saturdays I walked out with two or three dollars. Father told me to go to the bank and open an account.

I stood out front, debated going in. Huge granite stones, business like, forbidding; I thought no place for an eleven year old. I wasn’t even sure they’d let me in. It was for big business and there I stood fingering a pocketful of nickels and dimes and a few quarters, afraid to go in. But I screwed up my courage and went in and there was Truman Davis behind the iron bars that sat atop the marble counter. I didn’t see a bank dick inside waiting to throw me out. When I got to the teller window, he smiled, asked how he could help me.

“I—aah—I wanna open a bank account.”

Still smiling, he said he’d be glad to help me. He brought out a small blue book from under the counter; thin, about the size of a pack of Lucky Strikes. It had a small clear plastic window in the front cover. I watched as he wrote my name inside so when the book was closed it showed in the window. Then he looked in a big book and copied a number from it and wrote it in my little book. I saw the pages were lined with a grid of faint blue and red lines.

Finished, he asked, “How much do you want to deposit?”

I dug into my pocket and spread my handful of coins on the marble counter. I don’t recall the amount, but it was no more than a couple dollars. With deft hands and fingers used to counting coins he totaled them up and entered the amount in my book next to the date with blue ink in a fountain pen.

“There you go Douglas, now you have a bank account.” He handed me the book and cautioned not to not lose it and bring it with me when I wanted to make a deposit or withdrawal.

Deposits and withdrawals. Me, a little kid, making deposits and withdrawals in the Pinhook National Bank with a wrought iron fence atop a real marble counter that was higher than my chest. Right then my little blue bank book meant everything to me. Even more to me than my new Captain Video ring that whistled silent signals to Captain Video that I got free for sending in a box top from something or other. With the exception of only a few entries by Mr. Pierson, Truman was always my personal banker. I used that little blue book until I left home for college and when I did leave I took with me the memory of a warm, friendly man who treated a little kid with a pocket full of dimes and nickels no differently than the richest man in town and now that is worth more to me than all the bank books in the world.


Often we don’t know the effect we have on others in our lives. Truman Davis’ kindness to me when I was a boy is something I hold as one of my most prized memories because, being only a kid, he treated me with respect, the same way he treated everyone, even the richest man in town.

*  *  *

Since this ode to Mr. Davis was written, he has passed. But not his legacy. Almost without fail to this day when I either receive money or disburse it, I think of Truman Davis. He taught me at a young age the value of saving and thankfully the lesson was learned. I have had some very slim paydays off and on over the years, but there has never been even one when I didn’t set a few dollars aside for a rainy day, sometimes no more than two or three. He told me to pay myself first then whoever else I might owe. ‘After all, Doug, you worked for the money so take your cut off the top then pay everyone else.’

© 2017 Doug Elwell

Doug Elwell grew up on the prairie of rural east central Illinois. His stories feature the characters, lore, and culture of that region. He explores the depth and richness of the inner lives of its people and communities. He is an occasional contributor to The Australia Times. His work has also appeared in The Oakland Independent, Ignite Your Passion: Kindle Your Inner Spark, True Stories Well Told, Every Writer’s Resource, Writers Grapevine, Ruminate and Midwestern Gothic literary journal. He has a Kindle novel, Charlie, available from the War Writer’s Campaign at Proceeds from purchases go directly to the campaign, a non-profit that helps re-integrate veterans into society following their deployments. Doug can be contacted via email at:

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2 writing challenges from Creative Nonfiction magazine

From time to time I’ve tried to rise to the challenge of getting my writing accepted by Creative Nonfiction magazine. No success yet, but I’ll keep trying, as it gives me a reason to flex my writing muscles and a deadline to motivate action. What more does a writer need? Well, prize money would be nice, too.


Creative Nonfiction editors will award $3,500 for best essay, and all essays submitted will be considered for publication.

Here are two upcoming theme challenges:


Deadline: February 6, 2017

For the summer 2017 issue, Creative Nonfiction magazine is seeking submissions for a special issue devoted to the theme of “adaptation”—original essays illuminating the ways in which the need to keep up with a rapidly-changing world drives the work of scientists, designers, thinkers, innovators, farmers, soldiers, medical professionals, teachers, and others and affects the lives of prisoners, patients, refugees, students, travelers, and other citizens. As the world changes, so, too, do humans—whether in our approach to building things, developing new technologies (and adapting to the ways those technologies change our society), learning how to eat different kinds of foods, or learning how to dress differently. And of course adaptation is hardly limited to humanity; numerous other species—everything from viruses to plants and animals—have had to adapt to rapid changes in both global and local habitats… [more]

Dangerous Creations: Real-life Frankenstein Stories

Deadline: March 20, 2017

…we’re looking for true stories that explore humans’ efforts to control and redirect nature, the evolving relationships between humanity and science/technology, and contemporary interpretations of monstrosity.

Essays must be vivid and dramatic; they should combine a strong and compelling narrative with an informative or reflective element and reach beyond a strictly personal experience for some universal or deeper meaning. We’re open to a broad range of interpretations of the “Frankenstein” theme, with the understanding that all works submitted must tell true stories and be factually accurate. Above all, we’re looking for well-written prose, rich with detail and a distinctive voice… [more]

*   *   *

You don’t have to set your sights as high as winning publication in a prestigious literary magazine for lovers of “true stories well told”–you could just let these prompts lead you to the page. Where do the themes of “Adaptation” and “Dangerous Creations” take you?


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