Living Abroad: Books About Living the Expat Life

by missfootloose on June 8, 2013 · 17 comments

in Expat life, expat stories, living abroad

I trust you are familiar with the famous books by Peter Mayle about restoring a ruin of a house and living in the Provence, and the ones set in Tuscany by Frances Mayes. The romance of it! The food! The wine!

Tuscany house

Window in Tuscany, Italy

However, I’m not sure we all actually dream of doing that, because no matter how romantic it seems, the God of Stress and Disaster has lots of fun playing games as we toil away. Anyway, it is entertaining to read about it, don’t you think?

I’m always looking for books about living in foreign countries, and I thought I’d offer you a list of books I’ve read in the last few years. The following titles are all contemporary expat life tales, not travelogues or historical adventures. No, not all are about restoring derelict farm houses and growing your own olives. They’re listed in no particular order, with the titles linked to author web sites or other informational sites. When nothing else was available, I linked them to Amazon.

Almost French by Sarah Turnbull – France (Paris)

I loved this one for the culture shock elements: Casual, informal Aussie girl falls in love with Frenchman, moves to Paris and learns about how things are (not) done in the City of Light. Like, you know, you don’t run out to the corner boulangerie to buy a baguette while wearing your sweats. It’s not nice for the baker!

Perking the Pansies by Jack Scott – Turkey

Wanting a change from the rat race in clammy old England, two openly gay married guys take on the expat life in Turkey. A fun read. 

 Morocco architecture

Marrakech, Morocco

The Caliph’s House by Tahir Shah – Morocco

Okay, this is one about restoring an old house, but not any old house. It’s an empty, derelict mansion inhabited by jinns (spirits) and full of mysteries. Restoring it is an adventure involving exorcism rituals and creepy people. Great story. Here a 5 minute video of the author speaking about his experiences.

The Sex Lives of Cannibals by J. Maarten Troost – Vanuatu (Island nation in S. Pacific)

Interesting title, but rather misleading. But hey, it made me buy the book, and I wasn’t sorry.

“The Sex Lives of Cannibals tells the hilarious story of what happens when Troost discovers that Tarawa is not the island paradise he dreamed of. Falling into one amusing misadventure after another, Troost struggles through relentless, stifling heat, a variety of deadly bacteria, polluted seas, toxic fish…” The author has a way with description, so you may want to keep an air-freshener handy.

Freeways to Flip-Flops by Sonia Marsh – Beliz

Have you ever thought of just packing up the spoiled teenagers and getting out of America to live a simpler, less materialistic life on a tropical island? Here’s the story of a suburban family doing just that. It’s a gutsy thing to do, and not without risks.

The Reluctant Tuscan by Phil Doran – Italy

To get them away from their stressful Hollywood life, the author’s wife buys (without his knowing) a broken-down three-hundred-year-old farmhouse in Italy. He is not at all happy. But what do you know! He finds his Inner Italian and gets converted! The author is a writer/producer of various sitcoms, and you can tell in the writing. I could visualize this book straight into a sitcom.

 Spanish Fountain

Fountain in Seville, Spain

Dancing in the Fountain by Karen McCann – Spain

Expat life in the city of Seville: Karen and her husband decide moving to Spain and living an interesting expat life is more stimulating to the gray cells than sitting comfortably at home in America and snoozing through retirement waiting for the Grim Reaper. I so agree with her. Although she enjoys her siesta’s, Karen is wide awake as she revels in the fun of life in Spain.

Chickens, Mules, and Two Old Fools by Victoria Twead – Spain

British couple buys an old house in a tiny village in Spain, fix up the place, make friends, love their Spanish life.

Stealing Fatima’s Hand by Carolyn Theriault  – Morocco

Not all is charm and romance when you have a working life in Morocco. I found this non-touristy, irreverent view of Morocco very interesting. Canadian Carolyn and her husband are teachers and now work in Iraq. No, they’re not restoring old houses.

Miss Expatria by Christine Cantera  – Italy (Rome)

American Christine wants to live and work in Europe, gets on a plane to Rome and falls in love with Italian life. I enjoyed her enthusiasm in taking on all things Italian. Here’s an interview with Christine.

On Mexican Time by Tony Cohan.

This one has been around for a while. Tony Cohan is a novelist, his wife an artist. Escaping Los Angeles, they buy a house in San Miguel and discover the many pleasures of life in Mexico. Excellent writing.

Hot Sun, Cool Shadow by Angela Murrills – France

I just started reading this and it looks promising. The title tag is A Celebration of Slow Food and Authentic Living in Languedoc. Since I’ll be spending time in this part of Southern France this summer, and eating and drinking are high on my list of favorite things to do, I thought I’d check it out. Angela herself says she lives to eat and has generously offered recipes in the book.

Now, dear readers, please help me out here and add some of your fun reads in the comments. I would especially love to find expat books set in other parts of the world, say Africa, or Asia. Do you know any?

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Isabelle June 8, 2013 at 1:05 pm

Thank you very much for the suggestions. I love that kind of books. I’ll definitely put those on my list!

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Anne O'Connell (@annethewriter) June 8, 2013 at 1:23 pm

Hi Karen,
Great suggestions! The only one on your list that I’ve already read is Perking the Pansies (and I’ve read several of Peter Mayle’s books). I guess I’ll have to add a few more to my reading list. A couple that fall into this category that I’ve read and are among my favs are: The Woman Who Fell from the Sky: An American Journalist in Yemen, by Jennifer Steil and I have Iraq in my Shoe: Misadventures of a Soldier of Fashion, by Gretchen Berg… both memoirs and both riveting.
Expat Life Slice by Slice, by Apple Gidley is also a good one.

Happy reading,
Anne :)

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geeGee Parrot June 8, 2013 at 5:12 pm

Good choice of books.. try reading a book called ‘Vanilla Beans & Brodo’ by Isabella Dusi.. two Australians of Italian descent move back to Italy.. written maybe 15 years ago and has held its’ charm..

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KeithL. Sanderson June 8, 2013 at 7:28 pm

A friend of mine recently published a book about living in Nigeria from ’66-’68, during the Biafra war, while I was nearby in Ghana from ’66-’69. It is based on his experiences as an USAID (you’ll know all about that) employee and his friendship with an educated Nigerian. The title is “Parallel Tracks, Two Lanscapes/Two Journeys”, by Barry Veret. Available from Orders@Xlibris.com. ISBN# softcover: 978-1-4653-5253-8, Ebook 978-1-4653-5254-5. He wrote it in 3rd person, changed his name, but it’s really about him and his real friend. Very realistic.

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YTSL June 8, 2013 at 10:30 pm

Hi Miss Footloose –

Thanks for the recommendations — as I haven’t read any of them, including Peter Mayle’s books!

My favorite book for Hong Kong is Martin Booth’s “Gweilo: Memoirs of a Hong Kong Childhood” (AKA “Golden Boy: Memoirs of a Hong Kong Childhood” in the US). I’ve got a review of it here:-
http://webs-of-significance.blogspot.hk/2006/12/book-recommendation.html

For Japan, my favorite is Bruce Feiler’s “Learning to Bow: Inside the Heart of Japan”. It’s about an American who goes and teaches in a rural Japanese town.

There’s also Niall Murtagh’s “The Blue-Eyed Salaryman: From World Traveler to Life at Mitsubishi”.

All three tell of life in 20th century Asia. I’d love myself to get recommendations of good books of expat tales of 21st century Hong Kong and Japan!

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YTSL June 8, 2013 at 10:33 pm

P.S. For Africa, I’m not sure that it’d fall into an expat book per se but have you read Elenore Smith Bowen’s “Return to Laughter: An Anthropological Novel”? It’s actually a thinly veiled inside look at the fieldwork experiences of a cultural anthropologist written by a respected anthropologist named Laura Bohannan. Highly recommended — I had it as required reading in my “Introduction to Cultural Anthropology” classes!

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edj June 9, 2013 at 2:00 am

Oooh…I absolutely can’t resist these kinds of books! In fact, I am halfway finished with my own account of expat life in Mauritania. (Sadly, I’ve been halfway finished for a couple of years now…)

I just got an ARC to review of a brand new one from China “Apologies to my Censor.” Looks good but I haven’t gotten to it yet. I liked “Almost French” too. I own “The Caliph’s House” and someday soon I’ll read it. I liked one written by a peace corps worker in …burkina faso I think it was? I tried searching for the title on amazon but am obviously remembering it wrong.

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Sine June 10, 2013 at 6:27 pm

Oh boy, I’d love to be plugging my very own book here about expat life in South Africa, but alas, it’s not written yet:-) You’ve got me motivated to once again give it a start. Or rather a finish, since all the stories are already there.
I read both Dancing in the Fountain and Chickens, Mules and two old Fools and liked them both. I liked the beginning of Expat Life Slice by Slice as it starts in Africa and has some good stories, but some of the book felt too much like a how-to book. Another book I only read excerpts of and loved was Diplomatic Incidents. Very funny.
You almost have to add Bill Bryson to this list, as he lived as an expat in England for a long time and then returned to the US where he felt like an expat. He belongs more in the travel genre but any expat writer should read his books for inspiration.
Thanks for posting this list!

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Joy @MyTravelingJoys June 11, 2013 at 7:49 am

Great list! Loved Jack Scott’s book! Here are 3 more Turkey books:

Tea and Bee’s Milk: Our Year in a Turkish Village
Life with a View : A Turkish Quest (very good)
Anatolian Days and Nights: A Love Affair with Turkey, Land of Dervishes, Goddesses, and Saints

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Regan June 11, 2013 at 10:38 am

Thank you for some great recommendations – I am brand new to the ex pat life and have been finding blogs a huge comfort and source of inspiration and advice, but am definitely going to step up a gear and read some of these books – thanks!

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MaryWitzl June 17, 2013 at 3:34 pm

There are so many expatriate memoirs I’ve enjoyed, but one I’ve been thinking about recently is Mark Salzman’s Steel and Iron & Silk, about the author’s experiences teaching English and studying martial arts in China. Sheila Payne’s Afghan Amulet is another favorite; although it’s a travel memoir and not an expatriate story. I will come back to this post–I LOVE expatriate memoirs.

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Welshcakes Limoncello June 24, 2013 at 4:04 am

I find the trouble with a lot of these books is that they are written by well-off people who do not really live the life of the country. However, one of my favourites is “A House in Sicily” by Daphne Phelps.

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Jessie July 31, 2013 at 2:16 am

Heya. I just started reading Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts. It’s the first book in a long long time where I’m completely immersed and enraptured by the storytelling. It tells the story of an escaped convict, set in India – and the way he describes Mumbai and the people/poverty are so incredibly spot on. Best of all – it’s based on his own life.

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missfootloose July 31, 2013 at 4:58 pm

Jess, thanks for adding on to the list with this title. I’ll check it out. PS: liked your post about arriving in Dar es Salaam!

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Sharon Leaf August 5, 2013 at 4:32 pm

The Reluctant Tuscan by Phil Doran was hilarious! I read it several years ago & emailed Phil how my husband and I laughed our evenings away in bed as I we traveled with him along the dirt paths leading to his old Italian villa. As for me? I moved aboard a WWiI ship for 14 months and sailed the seven seas. I wish you smooth sailing & oceans of blessings, Karen.

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missfootloose August 7, 2013 at 3:14 pm

I also enjoyed The Reluctant Tuscan a lot! Sailing the Seven Seas on a WWII ship must have been an adventure! I crossed the Atlantic from Rotterdam to New York on a refurbished and chartered WWII ship in ’65 with a boatload of foreign exchange students from all over the world. Great fun!

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