Category Archives: Writing

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.

 

Has It All Been Done?

Recently I was asked by a magazine to look at possibilities for an article. Specifically ideas for a Western European locale of historic importance that hadn’t been covered too widely. Not an easy task, it turns out. While scouring the map the thought entered my mind, “has it all been done before?” Just as when I’m playing my guitar and writing a tune, I wonder if every possible permutation of chords has already been explored.

The more I stared at the map, my eyes raking over familiar place names, the more I began to despair at the thought of “it all having been done.” Later that day, while talking to a friend, she mentioned in an off-hand way how her grandpa, who’d recently died, and was given a deeply moving military burial. “Oh,” I said. “I’m sorry to hear that. He was always really nice. Actually, I had no idea he’d been in the military.”

“Neither did I”, she said. “He only mentioned it a couple times that I recall, and I was a kid, so I didn’t really care.” Evidently she found out while talking to his friends and other relatives at the funeral. She proceeded to tell me the harrowing and sometimes grisly story about her granddad’s exploits in World War Two, where as a young man he fought bravely in France and Germany, and was awarded medals for valor.

“I didn’t know this stuff till recently,” she said, a tone of amazement in her voice. “And I never saw the medals or knew about them till they were taken out of a drawer and put in his coffin with him. He had lots of them. He was always so quiet; he kept all of that stuff inside.”

Reflecting on the conversation, I realized that, yes, there are still great stories to be told about amazing lives; stories that often go unknown until that life is extinguished. It’s just a matter of asking; of seeking. Every location holds its own stories too, just like people. I recall the many times I have found that a flower-blanketed field was the scene of an epic medieval battle that decided the fate of nations, or that a pile of stones in the countryside was once a soaring abbey that witnessed a coronation of a great king beneath its vaulted ceilings.

And that is our job as travel writers, and as people fortunate enough to be able to tell these stories: We need to seek, we need to ask. Because there are stories worth telling, and they hide in the most unlikely of places, like a quiet valley, a broken-down complex of haunted stones, and a kind old man’s heart.

Upcoming publications

A bit of news: James has been busy: No new novel yet, but plenty of new articles being published soon:

–James’ newest travel article will be published in the September issue of Renaissance Magazine. The issue will be available in bookstores around the United States.

–Writers Weekly will be publishing an article from James containing how-to advice for aspiring travel writers in August!

–The August installment of Travel Post Monthly will publish James’ article on historical plays (think Richard III) being performed on the original English battlefields where they are set.

The Joy of Research

When writing a novel involving places that actually exist, you need to get the details exactly right or the boat won’t float. And the details aren’t just in the names and locations. It’s the sensory data that pulls the reader in.

I’m currently in the process of writing such a novel. The story takes the main character on a treasure hunt from the dusty archives of Barcelona to the ramshackle seaport of Lisbon and finally to the humid jungles of South America.

Suffice it to say there’s lots of research is involved in such an undertaking. But that’s not to say it’s drudgery. Quite the opposite, actually; the joys will be familiar to many fellow travelers, trip planners, and history buffs.

The details of the various locals matter, big time; I’ve needed to get a sense of the atmosphere of these places to portray them on the page. Take for example one of the books early settings: The Archivo General de Indias in Seville, Spain. The building houses the world’s biggest repository of documents about the Spanish Empire’s expeditions during the Age of Discovery.

I had to be there to breathe in the mustiness that hangs in the air. I had to smell the dust from the ancient, historic parchments flanked by soaring pink marble columns. I had to feel the stale air settle into my lungs as the leather of an old journal’s binding cracks under my fingers as I open it. I had to watch other researchers trawl through yellowing documents, handwritten by real people lost to time. I had to wander the opulent library as historians pore over documents in hope that the faded ink scratches will yield insight.

The majestic old archive in Seville was, as in so many cases, merely the starting point of a larger and greatly enriching journey.

Some call book research “work”. I call it the fun part.