Finding New Perspectives on Familiar Places

It can be difficult to find new angles through which to view places you already know well. Human nature being what is, it takes a conscious effort to see anything through new eyes. We tend to see only what we’re familiar with, and what strikes our vision on the most surface levels: the old buildings, the people, the streets, the here-and-now bustle that is so easy to get caught up in. But shifting our approach is sometimes needed if we are to really appreciate all the layers and the richness any place has to offer.

As a travel writer I’m always forced to do this, and though it’s challenging, it always rewards me with a much deeper perspective of a city’s beating heart and long-hidden scars.

For example, trying to find a topic in which to write about can suddenly have me thinking thematically. In the case of Amsterdam, I was recently casting about for a theme. The picturesque canals and predictable clichés are worn out. I wanted to go deeper.

Go deeper; don't settle for the surface.

Go deeper; don’t settle for the surface.

Of course, a well-deserved reputation for religious tolerance in previously intolerant times is a strong undercurrent in the city’s history, shaping its character. But everyone knows about the city’s lenient attitude towards marijuana and prostitution. The pot-selling “coffeshops” and the brightly painted brothels of the Red Light District are hard to miss, and at any rate weed and sex are not exactly major taboos anymore. So, in doing this “personality profile”, as I like to view travel writing, I decided to focus on the less well-known, more hidden-in-plain-sight landmarks that quietly but effectively tell the story of Amsterdam’s legacy of tolerance in intolerant times.

The point is, looking around the city for these things forced me to look through fresh eyes. I began to notice things I hadn’t paid much attention to before. Statues and plaques commemorating Amsterdam’s history—normally easy to pass over in the bustling, thoroughly modern city—began to emerge from the background, as if reaching out through the centuries to educate me with a silent power.

Paying attention to these small reminders eventually told a story, a long and rich narrative, of how the city’s philosophy of tolerance became a beacon for many persecuted people seeking a safe refuge from their own country’s intolerance in a way that the pot bars and sex shops could not. Small churches emerged from the urban crush and hordes of camera-toting tourists, inviting me into their quiet, solemn interior just as they’d invited minority sects whose beliefs had marked them out for discrimination. Small Catholic churches in times of Protestant intolerance (and vice versa) thrived here, as did humble little synagogues that operated without interference or malice from the city’s fathers.

Around a corner from a busy street, a small brick building in a quiet courtyard bears a faded plaque indicating that English pilgrims came here to worship before heading to the New World. They prayed here, and then boarded the Mayflower to escape persecution in their home country.  They were made to feel comfortable here.

The remnants of more recent times came to the fore as well. I begin to notice the many houses bearing historical plaques indicating that the occupants courageously sheltered Jewish families during the Second Word War.

Not far away a statue of a portly, none-too-attractive dockworker seems at first glance to be a forgettable, bland post-war tribute to laborers. Look closer and you’ll find an inscription indicating that it memorializes the brave stand of the Amsterdam’s dockworkers, who staged the first strike undertaken in Occupied Europe to protest the mistreatment of the city’s Jews by the Nazis.

The strike, held a few days after 400 Jewish men were herded together on the spot where the statue now stands, was brutally put down by the SS within hours, and is remembered by few today. The statue’s rotund subject was a real-life non-Jewish dockworker who participated in the strike because he felt it was the right thing to do.

The Dockworker statue commemorating the Strike of 1941

The Dockworker statue commemorating the Strike of 1941

A small room in the city’s historic Dutch Theatre, once a point of assembly for Jews about to be shipped off to concentration camps, holds a humble memorial of three little stones. The memorial seems unimportant. Search for the true story, however, and you’ll find that the three stones represent a local man named Walter Suskind, his wife and small daughter. Suskind was the hero who smuggled 1,200 Jewish children to safety during the war. In 1945 his activities were discovered by the Nazis and he and his family were themselves sent to Auschwitz, never to return.

Soon I begin to understand how many centuries’ worth of brave Amsterdammers have risked it all to welcome and aid minorities in dark times, and that courage was common place in the face of tyranny. It underscores the strength of Amsterdam’s heritage of tolerance more than any fashionable pot bar or cheesy sex shop ever could.

My point is, the “what” that you look for isn’t nearly as important as the act of searching for new ways to connect to a city’s unique DNA. The important thing is looking from a thematic perspective, searching for that thread of history that informs its culture. This can provide the prism through which you can see through the here-and-now veneer and access the richness of a city’s historical character, forged in the crucible of time and trial.

Back from another adventure

Having just come back from another great trip, I’m reminded again of the richness of Europe and the gifts it keeps on giving to any traveler willing to seek them out. I went to France on assignment for three mid-size, nationally-distributed magazines, and set to work. Almost immediately. It’s amazing how engrossing traveling and learning can be, especially when you have the added incentive of a contract for a story that must be delivered. Poking around the countryside and investigating ancient abbeys, ruined castles, and little medieval towns gives me a charge like nothing else. It satisfies my twin desires of adventure and knowledge.

I adore this French village in Alsace region.

I adore this French village in Alsace region.

As usual, the interactions with locals carbonated the experience. Sharing a bench—and soon after, a lively conversation—with local man in half-timbered Rouen or chatting with the lady at the café table next to mine in the pretty little Burgundian city of Beaune added texture to the photos I’d captured with my camera. The clusters of pixels contained beautiful images of churches and historic buildings to be sure, but the connections forged with the everyday residents of these places gave depth and perspective to the memories in my own mind—a depth and perspective I hope will be felt by my readers.

It’s the local people—like the kindly town archivist in the German city who helped me make sense of his community’s tragic WWII history—that are the real repositories of history and tradition. Without him, I’d never had known about the moving memorial that sits on a seldom-visited hill just outside the town. It was a powerful, emotional experience to visit the lonely hill—the last resting place of so many of his community that lost their lives while the dueling armies fought it out around them—at sunset.

At those times you realize that the pretty stuff is only architecture.

Other travelers met on the road have become new friends too; I’ll soon be swapping trip highlights over email with the LA filmmaker from the Rhine River Valley village of Bacharach, the Seattle-area photographer from St. Goar, and the US psychology student from Colmar.

As I sit here shaking off jetlag and organizing my hastily-scribbled notes, I smile as I think about the experiences I crammed into my short trip. The research and photos I took will yield excellent material for my article assignments. But more importantly, the experiences are already sowing the seeds of ambition for my next adventure overseas.


Scars from Scotland and Bills from Budapest

A good traveler knows that it isn’t the number of places you’ve been that counts, it’s the number of meaningful experiences. Just like the saying, “it’s not the number of breaths you take that matters, it’s the moment that take your breath away.” Same with traveling. Miles mean little, so do stamps in your passport. That stuff is ancillary to the true story: the adventures themselves (be they emotional, fun, or just plain interesting) and the souls you were lucky enough to encounter along the way.

For example, a friend asked me today, “So how many places have you been to?” I get asked question a lot. My answer is always, “I don’t know. Never counted. But you know what? I’ve got a scar from Scotland, some friends from Florence and a parking bill from Budapest.”

All true, and all linked to great travel memories. All the best travelers use this sort of yardstick to measure their experiences abroad. The key is perspective: think qualitatively, not quantitatively.

Having said that, I think it’s safe to assume the Hungarian police have given up expecting me to pay that stupid fine they left on my windshield. To this day I’m not quite sure what it says on that thing, but it looks pretty cool in a frame. As for the scar from Scotland, that’s another story altogether.

Beautiful Little Beaune, the Heart of Burgundy

The picturesque little city of Beaune, nestled in the fertile green vineyards of Burgundy, is a handy home base for exploring the region. While the surrounding area holds tiny hamlets and ruined abbeys, I’ve found Beaune to be a good option when in need of a historic place to stop, wander, and spend a few nights between forays into the countryside. It just feels comfortable. But even if you’re just passing through, it’s worth a wander in and of itself.

Pulling into town you’ll see signs for the Hotel Dieux, but don’t show up with your luggage and try to check in. The stunning six hundred-year-old building is not a hotel at all; it’s a medieval charity hospital. A wealthy local funded the construction in the wake of the plagues that ravaged Europe in the fifteenth century. Entire families were killed off, and many of the region’s surviving inhabitants were left destitute.

Notice the intriguing woodwork patterns in the Gothic structure; it remains in incredibly good condition. There are several well-preserved rooms that offer a glimpse into how the medieval sick were cared for in a prosperous town. There is also some priceless art work and an interesting exhibit on its former life. Many of the area’s poor residents checked in; few checked out.

It’s hard to appreciate Beaune’s history and culture without appreciating the role of its wine trade. As Burgundy rivals Bordeaux in terms of production of top-quality wine, there is of course plenty of good wine to be had in and around town. The Museum of the Wine of Burgundy is a requisite stop, boasting a model of the medieval town and exhibits on the town’s long and varied history. It’s a good opportunity to understand why the vino trade was so much a part of the region’s heritage. After all, wine was the lifeblood of the city’s prosperity. It paid for the elegant medieval homes and churches surrounding you and the cobbles under your feet.

No French town would be complete without an ancient church, and the seven hundred-year-old Collégiale Notre Dame fills the bill beautifully with exquisite stained glass windows. I’ve always found old churches to be ideal spaces for escaping crowds, late afternoon heat, and the rush of modernity. Take the opportunity to sit down in the Romanesque landmark and contemplate as the sunlight filters through the colorful stained glass, causing a kaleidoscope to dance on the soaring stone columns.

If you’re in town on a Wednesday or Saturday, enjoy the colorful market happening on the place Carnot, just as it has for centuries. It’s hard to miss—most of the Beaune’s roads lead to it.

After a fine dinner and a restful night’s sleep, venture into the country lanes again, maybe heading to picture-perfect Château de la Rochepot, historic Cluny Abbey, or just joyriding past sleepy, I-could-retire-here villages that have no name. Beaune is well-situated at the intersection of some of the area’s main roads, so with a car and a good map you’ll be able to get out of town and amongst the vineyards in no time (just don’t get stuck on the ring road).

If you’re lucky enough to find yourself in the neighborhood, consider exploring this fun little city in the heart of Burgundy.

Searching for Shakespeare in Historic Stratford-on-Avon

In this second in a series on the realities of being a being a travel writer, I want to mention something that is not only important to travel writing, but to the essence of good travel itself: Be open to surprising detours.

Case in point: A couple years ago I received an assignment to visit England’s Duxford Royal Air Force Base, a historic airfield in the countryside just outside of Cambridge. Duxford is part of the Imperial War Museum and hosts the world’s premier collection of vintage warplanes. I was to write about the base and its amazing array of famous fighters.

While making my way north from London, I made a point to stop at one of my favorite places, the charming town of Stratford-Upon-Avon. The picturesque town, about a hundred miles from the capital, is known the world over for its Shakespeare connection: The great man himself was born here (his childhood home is still there) and then retired to a nearby home after his dazzling career in London.

It was during my visit to Stratford (which was intended to be a quick one) that I heard about an archeological excavation being done at the site of New House, the home where Shakespeare spent in his final years. The home was demolished in the 1800’s, and took with it information about the man’s last decades.

Overseen by the Birmingham University Archeological Unit, the dig aimed to get some answers about the man behind the legend. To do that, large swaths of the property were being excavated. I took one look at the historic undertaking and decided I needed to find a way to be involved.

I introduced myself to the lead archeologist and got in touch with the head of the project. I explained that I was a visiting American travel writer and that I’d love to write an article about the dig. I asked to assist on the excavation in order to get a better feel for the project. Before I knew it, I had been ushered onto the grounds, issued a yellow vest, and given a quick tutorial in proper excavating.

The next day I was kneeling in the dirt, sweating heavily under the sweltering summer sun and scraping centuries of dirt from Shakespeare’s cellar floor. Trowel in hand, I followed the exposed lines of Elizabethan brickwork with my eyes. These lines formed the foundations of the Bard’s final home. It was thrilling to be a part of uncovering history.

My tenure as a pseudo-archeologist ended a week later when I decided I had all the research material I needed (translation: I was tired, sunburned, and out of clean clothes). I turned in my trowel and headed northward for the Duxford base.

I kept the yellow vest, though.

The Duxford visit went well, and the resulting story was successful. But the Shakespeare article remains one of my favorite pieces, and the experience was one of a kind. There were other incidents related to that visit, but those will not make it into the pages of a travel publication anytime soon. And none of them have happened if I hadn’t kept my antennae alert for a good story and then made the effort to get involved.

The moral of the story is that while a travel writer must get his story, he also must listen when a better one calls out.

Heed the call.

Journaling on the Road

Let’s face it, finding time and discipline to write well on the road can be really, really tough. Traveling takes a lot of mental stamina. At the end of a long day, once you’ve found a dinner and settled into the hostel, the last thing you have the mental juice for is thoughtful writing about the day’s events. At that point, your brain doesn’t want to process or reflect. It wants to rest. It’s checked out for the night.

But I try to force myself to journal every night on my travels. I’ve got bags full of bits and pieces from my travels sitting in my closet, but the most important physical souvenirs are the small, leather-bound journals that gather dust on a bookshelf. The journals—weathered and worn—contain the thoughts and impressions of places and experiences recorded in the moment. Some entries are shallow and quickly scribbled; some are well-thought out and insightful.

Most travelers will tell you the same thing; their journals are frayed little time capsules of emotions and experiences they wouldn’t part with for the world. Sometimes they’re written on a rickety milk run train in the countryside, sometimes they’re written while perched on a rock high in the Alps while cowbells jangle in the distance. Sometimes the entries are well-crafted insights inspired while sitting in a soaring cathedral during evensong; other times they’re scribbled late at night while the eyelids are forcing themselves closed and the synapses are shot.

It takes discipline to keep up a journal on the road, but it’s well worth it. We’ll return to the smudged pages at some point in the future and be reminded of a vivid memory, surprising impression, or fleeting thought. And we’ll be glad we had the discipline to stop and record it, even when the train ride was bumpy and the eye lids were heavy.

Pick up that pen, open the book and record a memory to cherish.

The What-ness of Travel

My college philosophy professor was fond of the term “what-ness.” As in, the “what-ness” of a place or feeling. Meaning, the core essence of it. Being a callow young man, at first I rolled my eyes and thought, “He’s nuts. That’s not even a word!”

But in time I became a fan of the concept, because it was really the perfect way to approach description. Now, as a professional writer, the concept is at the heart of my daily work. As I write my new novel—the plot of which involves a travel writer gallivanting through several countries—I’m well aware of the importance of capturing the soul of the locations. I stop myself from reaching for the same old clichés and hackneyed phrases and focus on the “what-ness”.

Just as my old professor taught me to.

The challenge is straight forward, but not easy. Our mandate is to render the location in vivid detail using all the sensory data we can muster.

The what-ness is comprised of the facets that add up to the whole impression. The good news is there’s no secret formula to reach the what-ness. The tools needed to render these places in almost-flesh-and-blood are in already us. They’re all around us, and they’re free.

Just focus on the sensory data.

For example, does the location of the given scene have a particular smell, perhaps giving clues to the dominant agricultural or commercial activity of the neighborhood? Or a noise that’s indicative of the place’s character? What are the visuals of the place—are the buildings fairly humdrum or are they freshly coated in an array of pastels? How are the people dressed? Do you dodge well-dressed professionals striding along, absorbed in their own cares? Or do you pass under lines of drying laundry hung from lines suspended from apartment balconies while grandmothers lean out open windows chatting with their neighbors?

These are just a few examples to give a sense of what I mean.

In future posts I’ll be expanding on ways to imbue these places with the magic necessary to touch the reader’s senses and emotions. By doing so, you are not just presenting the reader with a laundry list of facts; you are leading them to their own satisfying discovery of the “what-ness”.

The challenge is straight forward, but not easy.

I know, it’s tempting to try to bottle the soul of an entire city and give it to your audience to feast on. The instinct is noble but the end result usually does a profound disservice to the city itself. Such attempts will more than likely lead to a watering down of the place you’re trying to describe. And no place deserves a shallow generalization.

More importantly, such an attempt often does profound disservice to the reader. The reader has come to your words trusting your experience. They come for a taste of a place they’ve never been before—or at least a sample of a neighborhood they didn’t have the chance to get to know on their last visit.