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LOCATION, LOCUTION: In trio of memoirs, Marjory McGinn celebrates life inside the heart of Greece at height of economic crisis

Location Locution Marjory McGinn
Tracey Warr is here with Marjory McGinn, a Scottish writer who grew up in Australia and now lives in East Sussex, England. In the course of a life spent trundling between Northern and Southern hemispheres, Marjory discovered Greece, which is the only non-English speaking country she has lived in (fortunately, she can speak some Greek). Her memoirs on her midlife Grecian adventures show a journalist’s eye for mood and detail and a gift for telling a good story, as Tracey’s interview will reveal.

Greetings, Displaced Nationers.

My guest this month is Marjory McGinn, who credits her childhood migration from Scotland to Australia for inspiring an interest in travel and writing and putting a nomadic spin on her adult life. After leaving school in Sydney, Australia, and a short stint working for an airline, Marjory undertook a long overseas trip, arriving firstly in the land of her birth, Scotland. “It was a rite of passage for the children of migrant families in Australia seeking to go back to the ‘old country’ to hunt down their roots and find the cultural links they thought they were missing,” she says.

Greece was always her real destination, however, for reasons she outlines in her series of travel memoirs. The first time she visited Greece, during the military dictatorship in the 1970s, she stayed a year, working in Athens. Despite (perhaps because of?) the political unrest, it was the start of a lifelong love affair with the country. As Marjory puts it in one of her books:

“I was instantly smitten with the place. It was nothing I could easily define, but more a fusion of disparate things, all maddeningly exotic to my young mind.”

Circling back to Australia in the early 1980s, Marjory became a journalist and worked for leading newspapers in Sydney as a feature writer. At the peak of her career, however, the urge to uproot took over once again. Accompanied this time by her English partner and fellow journalist, Jim, she moved back to Scotland at the dawn of the 21st century. The couple carried on working in newspapers for 10 years, but then a decline in the industry inspired them to have a mid-life odyssey in Greece, with their slightly mad Jack Russell terrier, Wallace, in tow.

At that time, of course, Greece was sliding into economic crisis and would soon have to be bailed out repeatedly by its EU partners; it was a country on the edge. But Marjorie and her two companions were undaunted, and what should have been a year living in a hillside village in the wild Mani region (the middle peninsula of the southern Peloponnese), turned into three. They spent another year in the nearby Messinian peninsula, in 2014.

“I think I have probably undertaken a serious move at the start of every decade, for different reasons, and the issue of ‘where is home?’ has been one that I have examined a lot and also in my three travel memoirs, in an ever restless search for the perfect location,” Marjory says. “I am not sure I’ve found it yet, but Greece has already taken a firm grip of my heart. Although we are now back in the UK, living in England this time, Greece will always be on our future odyssey wish-list.”

Marjory’s first Greek travel memoir, Things Can Only Get Feta, about life in the Mani village at the start of the debt crisis, was published in 2013, followed by its sequel, Homer’s Where the Heart Is. Her most recent memoir, A Scorpion in the Lemon Tree, came out last month.

MM Trilogy

Now let’s talk to Marjory and hear about how she approached the challenge of capturing life in rural Greece during turbulent times to her readers.

* * *

Welcome, Marjory, to Location, Locution. What was it about living in Greece that inspired you to write a series of memoirs?

When I started writing my first travel memoir, Things Can Only Get Feta, I was living in the the hillside village of Megali Mantineia, and location—it’s a traditional farming settlement—was a driving force. The Mani region of Greece is wild, unspoilt, majestic: beneath the Taygetos mountains, with olive groves spilling down hillsides to the edge of the Messinian Gulf. Like much of rural southern Greece, it also has a rawness about it. So the scenery had a powerful effect on my imagination. But the location on its own might not have inspired me to write a book. What did, however, was a chance meeting early on with an eccentric goat herder, Foteini, who has featured in my three books (that’s her on the cover of the first one) and was probably their unlikely muse. She certainly inspired my journalistic curiosity, and from then on a narrative started to take shape in my mind. She had been riding down the road on her donkey in the village of Megali Mantineia, where we had just looked at a stone house for rent for a year. We weren’t sure about the house, but Foteini sealed our fate by chivvying us up. “Why wouldn’t you take it?” she said, abruptly. Why indeed. So we did, and it was to be the start of one of the most curious and challenging friendships of my life. The fact that I had some reasonable Greek language skills to begin with meant I was able to connect with Foteini and many of the other wonderful villagers struggling through the economic crisis, and I knew I had to write a book to somehow capture the way of life that hadn’t changed that much in centuries—but I felt that due to the Greek sovereign-debt crisis, it would.
Foteini quote

You wanted to make your readers feel what it is like to live in rural Greece at a time of economic turmoil. What was your technique for evoking the atmosphere?

For me it’s always about the people and I tried to evoke the spirit of Greece through the people I befriended, and also through descriptions of their homes, their celebrations and all the funny and touching moments we shared, because really, Greeks are big characters and they dwarf other aspects like landscape—in my mind anyway. I also like to evoke an atmosphere with humour. I do tend to see humour in everything and in the three books I’ve homed in on quirky things—like the way Foteini always dresses in mismatched layers and the fact she likes to peel and then wash her bananas before she eats them. Things like that always cracked me up.

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?

I think culture and food in rural Greece gives a strong sense of location. This is a place brimming with customs and local events: saints’ days, feast days, local fetes, and national celebrations. At any one time in Greece, someone is celebrating something. And food is at the heart of everything and it does tend to capture the essence of life, like the ritual of lamb cooked on a spit outdoors at Easter. Greeks can spend half the day sitting around a meal table with family and friends, sharing food and a modest amount of wine. What intoxicates most Greeks is company, parea, and I sometimes think the food is really just a bonus.

Can you give a brief example from your writing that illustrates place?

For our latest odyssey in Greece we lived in Koroni, in Messinia (the left-hand prong of the three Peloponnese peninsulas), a region that hasn’t been written about a great deal. We lived on a hillside again in a glorious setting, ironically, right opposite the Mani and the spine of the Taygetos mountains. This was a very peaceful and unspoilt region. The passage is from my latest memoir, A Scorpion in the Lemon Tree:

The late afternoons in June were amongst the nicest hours of summer, after the midday heat had died down and especially if cooling winds made a gentle susurrus through the olive orchards from the sea below. It was impossible not to be seduced by the ease of life before the big heatwaves of July and August bore down on us all. We would often go for a late walk, taking the road that continued north past the turn-off for the villa complex. On either side were orchards with ancient olive trees standing in rows, their trunks thick and gnarled with age, but nowhere near past their usefulness. There were small farms, some no more than dry patches of land with wire enclosures for goats and turkeys, watched over by a few chained hounds.

On the right-hand side, another track ascended to a high plateau of land overlooking the gulf. This had been a village once, called Ayios Dimitrios, settled in the 18th century. It was encircled by olive trees growing right to the edge of the cliff-face with the sea below. All that remained of the village were the skeletal outlines of walls hidden in long grass and herb bushes, and a large grinding stone from the village’s olive press.

It was a quiet place, with a peaceful sense of the past, of lives well lived and not quite forgotten. Under one of the olive trees a rickety wooden ladder, used for harvesting, was abandoned and leaning against the trunk, as if offering a stairway to heaven. This place came pretty close already.
Seduced by the ease of life

In general, how well do you think you need to know a place before using it as a setting?

With a travel memoir, knowing a place well need not be an issue if being a newcomer, an ingénue, is part of the narrative. With my memoirs, I already knew a lot about Greece before I went, after living there in my youth and after many long stays. I didn’t know a lot about rural Greece though, and the Mani in particular. It was a quick learning curve, however, because as journalists, Jim and I decided to freelance while there to help fund our adventure and had to connect with the region and the people in quick time, which was no great hardship. I think that helped us enormously and made it easier for me to write a truthful account of living there during the crisis. My third book, A Scorpion In The Lemon Tree, set on the Messinian peninsula, where we lived for a year in 2014, was a totally different experience, as it was a place that we knew nothing about, and more than that, was not the place we really wanted to be. How this happened, and how we dealt with it, formed the main crux of the story, so it worked to my advantage.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

My first literary hero was the displaced (Polish-British) writer Joseph Conrad. The way he evokes the dark, brooding qualities of central Africa in Heart Of Darkness is spine-tinglingit’s still one of my favourite books. I love Patricia Highsmith’s books, especially The Talented Mr Ripley, a novel about (and by!) a displaced American. The Italian locations in the book are so sensual and pervasive, they almost become an extra character in the book.

MM fave authors

Marjory McGinn’s picks for novelists who have mastered the art of writing about place

Thanks so much, Marjory, for your answers. It’s been a pleasure.

Thank you for inviting me to discuss my wanderings on your Location, Locution page for the Displaced Nation site. I enjoyed the experience.

* * *

Readers, any questions for Marjory? Please leave them in the comments below.  And I have one signed copy of A Scorpion in the Lemon Tree, which will go to for FIRST reader to email me their name and postal address traceykwarr@gmail.com with “A Scorpion in the Lemon Tree” in the subject line. **Too late! THE GIVEAWAY NOW HAS A WINNER. Maybe next time?**

Meanwhile, if you would like to discover more about Marjory McGinn and her books, I suggest you visit her Big Fat Greek Odyssey author site and blog. You can also follow her on Twitter.

À bientôt! Till next time…

* * *

Thank you so much, Tracey! I’ve always had a soft spot for Greece myself and was worried about the country during its economic crisis. It was also hit hard by the refugee crisis, I believe. I’ve also never been to the Peloponnese; it sounds fascinating! —ML Awanohara

Tracey Warr is an English writer living mostly in France. She has published two medieval novels with Impress Books. She just now published, in English and French, a future fiction novella, Meanda, set on a watery exoplanet, as an Amazon Kindle ebook. Her new historical novel, Conquest: Daughter of the Last King, set in 12th century Wales and England, will be published by Impress Books in September.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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Photo credits: Top of page: The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). All other photos were supplied by the author or downloaded from Pixabay, except for: 1) photo of Koroni: [Untitled – Koroni], by MihiScholl via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); photo of Joseph Conrad: Joseph Conrad via Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain Mark 1.0); and 3) photo of Patricia Highsmith: Highsmith on After Dark (1988), by Open Media Ltd via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

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For this fearless and feisty travel photography pro, a picture says…

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Steve Davey at a New Year's celebration in Laos, 2011 (supplied).

Steve Davey at a New Year’s celebration in Laos, 2011 (supplied).

A Picture Says… columnist James King is away this month, so ML Awanohara is pinch hitting in his place.

Greetings, Displaced Nationers who are also photography buffs!

Once again, I am the feeble stand-in for James King, who will be back in August. That said, I am happy to be the vehicle for bringing to you such an exciting interview subject: Steve Davey, a professional photographer who is also an intrepid wanderer around Planet Earth, with the creds to prove it. Steve has produced two best-selling BBC travel books, one about unforgettable islands to escape to, the other about unforgettable places that should be on everyone’s bucket list.

He has also written a photography book about festivals around the world as well as a guide to location photography.

And he has started up his own business leading travel-photography tours, about which a participant has written:

“Your love of photography and travel is infectious and I can honestly say I have never laughed or learnt so much on a holiday before!”

I recall that when I first stumbled across Steve’s photography site, I found him an amiable character—on his About Page he says is is a “crap sightseer” who is “more interested in how places work and often how they don’t, than in visiting monuments and museums.” I could also sense his insatiable curiosity about the wider world coupled with a certain fearlessness. This mix of qualities suggests not only that he takes great photos but also that he isn’t easily daunted.

Let’s find out if these impressions were right by giving Steve the floor.

* * *

Hi, Steve, and welcome to the Displaced Nation. Let’s start in the same way James always does: where were you born, and when did you spread your wings to start traveling?
I was born in a small village near Bristol. I longed to head out and explore the world, and as soon as I was old enough I headed off around Europe on an Inter-rail pass. That year I got as far as Hungary. The following year I got even further—to Romania in the days of Ceausescu.

Which countries have you visited thus far, and have you lived in any of them?
I have been to almost ninety countries in the course of my work. Some of these, I have been to dozens of times. I am a compulsive traveler but have always been based in London, travelling where the work takes me. As you mentioned in your introduction, I’ve shot a couple of books for the BBC. Each of these required taking all the photos for about twenty-five chapters in a single year. For the Unforgettable Islands book, I did the equivalent of 6.5 times around the world on 99 different flights.

So you’ve never been an expat?
There are some parts of the world I’ve visited that I would love to have lived in, but my feelings about this are always changing. So I figure it’s best to base myself in London and have the option of returning to the latest place that has taken my fancy.

Well, I love London, so that’s fine by me. Which part of the city do you live in?
South London. Brixton. About the closest you can come to living in a foreign land but without leaving the UK. It is an eclectic area with a multicultural flavour. My local breakfast cafe is Eritrean. There is a large Caribbean market nearby and people of every culture. My daughter’s school is like a 1990s Benneton advertisement.

I lived in South London myself at one stage: Kennington. I remember Brixton well and can picture exactly what you are talking about.

“Art flourishes where there is a sense of adventure.” —Alfred North Whitehead

Moving right along to the part we’ve all been waiting for: a chance to appreciate a few of your photos. Can you share with us three photos that capture some of your favorite memories of the so-called “displaced” life of global travel? And for each photo, can you briefly tell us the memory that the photo captures, and why it remains special to you?
Before starting, I should tell you that I love to photograph festivals. I love the chaos and the sheer exuberance of these events. They are when a destination comes alive and when a place is at its most characteristic for the people who live there (festivals are not put on for tourists). So I’ll be sharing three photos of the most memorable festivals I’ve had the honor of witnessing.

First, the Sonepur Mela (Cattle Fair) in the state of Bihar, India. I have attended a number of festivals in India, from the largest gathering of humans on the planet to remote gatherings in the Himalayas and elephant temple festivals in Kerala in the South, but the Sonepur Mela is one of my favourites. There’s a vast animal market including the Haathi Bazaar, where elephants are lined up for sale. There’s also religious bathing in the confluence of the rivers Gandak and Ganges. The Sonepur Mela attracts few tourists and I consider it one of the hidden cultural gems of India.

Sonepur Mela_India

Elephants for sale at Sonepur Mela in India. Photo credit: Steve Davey


Wow! I have a theory that it’s why we all travel: to see the “elephant.” Clearly, you’ve done that. So what’s next in the photo-fest, so to speak?
Next is one of a festival held by the Kalash people, who live in three remote valleys in the north of Pakistan on the border of Afghanistan. They trace their lineage back to the soldiers of Alexander the Great. They tend to have piercing blue eyes and fair skin. Animist non-Muslims, they drink, wear bright clothes, and permit men and women to dance together. This makes them rather unpopular in the region. Guarding this event were some 3,000 special forces commandos. Despite this, the festival atmosphere was lively and chaotic. It was one of the great privileges of my career to have experienced and photographed this event.
Kalash_Pakistan

The Kalash people have a handle on what it means to be festive. Photo credit: Steve Davey

Steve, you are opening new windows for me on the world. I never knew about this unique tribe of people in that part of the world. So what’s your last pick?
Last but not least is this incredible festival that takes place on Pentecost Island, one of the islands within the remote archipelago of Vanuatu, in Oceania. It involves the village menfolk hurling themselves from high towers, with their fall only broken by vines fixed to their ankles. I’ve wanted to photograph this ever since I saw the film of the so-called land divers shot by the great David Attenborough. I finally got the opportunity when working on the “unforgettable islands” book for the BBC. It was a humbling rite to witness, and I managed to shoot some stunning pictures, too! This photo represents for me the kind of doors that have been opened in my life due to being a photographer who specializes in travel. I have managed to witness, and take part in, so much more of the world than I ever would have done without a camera.

Vanuatu

The precursor to bungee jumping, but a lot more risky. Photo credit: Steve Davey


Truly, you have seen such a wide swathe of life’s rich tapestry. Being presented with what is clearly just a fraction of the photo evidence has been humbling for me.

“Travel makes one modest, you see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.” —Gustave Flaubert

Having seen your first three photos, I expect it’s a bit of a tough choice, but which are the top three locations you’ve most enjoyed taking photos in—and can you offer us an example of each?
It is a tough choice, so I’ll give you four:

I love India. I can’t get enough of the place. I love the utterly bewildering variety it offers. I have been all over the country and attended a number of religious festivals, including the Kumbh Mela—officially the largest gathering of humans on the planet. But that’s not all there is. Here is a shot of a Buddhist monk in Ladakh, in the Indian Himalayas:

Ladakh monk

A Thikse Buddhist monk blows a conch horn announcing prayers. Photo credit: Steve Davey

I first travelled to Laos years ago, soon after it opened up to foreign visitors. There were few roads up in the north, and the only way to get around was by boat. I love the country’s atmosphere, its people—and could not resist photographing this line of monks heading out at dawn to collect food, or alms.

Laos monks alms

The tak bat, or Buddhist monks’ morning collection of food (alms), in Luang Prabang. Photo credit: Steve Davey

I still love Morocco. It is the most crazy place that you can visit from London on a low-cost airline. Over the years I’ve noticed that the people have become less friendly to photography, making it more stressful to walk around and take pictures; but there are few places that excite me more than the Jemaa el-Fnaa square in Marrakesh. Home to snake charmers, acrobats, fake dentists, herbalists, drummers and some of the best street food this side of Delhi. Electric!

Morocco

Don’t make the mistake of catching the snake charmer’s eyes! Photo credit: Steve Davey


I have to interrupt for a moment to say that of all the photos you’ve shared thus far, this is my favorite. Even though I’m not fond of rattlesnakes, it captures an atmosphere that is utterly different and seductive. Now, you said you had four?
The last one is my wildcard. I usually love hot, dusty places with people. Svalbard is my Achilles Heel. I love the cold, the wildlife and the stunning scenery. I have seen it from ships, by snowmobile and on foot. I love the ever-present danger, the midnight sun and the sense of true adventure.
Svalbard

Polar bear viewing in the crown of Arctic Norway. Photo credit: Steve Davey


Incredible! The Moroccan rattlesnakes definitely scared me, but, though I know I should also be scared of the polar bears, I can’t help thinking how cute they look.

“Photography is the only language that can be understood anywhere in the world.” —Bruno Barbey

I notice that you often photograph people, whereas quite a few of the interviewees for this column stick to scenery. Do you ever feel reserved taking photos of people, particularly when they are conscious of your doing so? How do you handle it?
I seldom photograph people without approaching them and interacting with them in some way. Spend even a small amount of time with someone and you can come up with an engaged and atmospheric portrait. This is a difficult skill to develop, but once you have mastered it then taking people’s picture is a much less fraught experience and far more enjoyable for both the photographer and the person being photographed.

Here are a couple of examples where I’ve applied those principles:

A Sadhu (holy man) at the Ganga Sagar Mela (festival) in West Bengal, India; a pilgrim at the Korzok Gustor festival in Ladakh, Northern India.

Examples of Steve Davey’s people shots: A Sadhu (holy man) at the Ganga Sagar Mela (festival) in West Bengal, India; a pilgrim at the Korzok Gustor festival in Ladakh, Northern India.

“Eyes like a shutter, mind like a lens.” —Anonymous

And now switching over to the technical side of things: what kind of camera, lenses, and post-processing software do you use?
I shoot exclusively on Nikon pro camera and lenses. I shoot either with the Nikon D3X, Nikon D800 or Nikon D810. I have a cupboard of pensioned off cameras, including a brace of F4s and a brace of F5s. Cameras don’t tend to hold their value: especially when I have finished with them. I am a believer in going for the utmost quality in work. To me this is the mark of a professional photographer, shooting with the best lenses and filters. I always shoot in the RAW format and post process with Adobe Lightroom.

I suspect I need to read your photography guide or take one of your tours to fully appreciate the wisdom of what you just said. But I trust you!

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a cash advance.” —Anonymous

Finally, can you offer a few words of advice for wannabe photographers who are traveling the world or living abroad?
Working as a professional travel photographer is bloody tough. There are a lot of talented amateurs who shoot a few good shots and virtually give them away; and a bunch of fauxtographers who have the website and the business card but the only way that they can get work is to work for free in the hope that they can break into the industry. Best to work at something that makes you money and take photographs for pleasure. Taking pictures for love and not money is a dream for most of us professional photographers!

Thank you, Steve! It’s been a memorable virtual journey into corners of the world I didn’t know existed!

* * *

Readers, that was something else! I’d never even heard of some of these places before, and Steve has been to them several times over. What do you make of his vast range of travel experiences and photography advice? Any questions for him on on his photos or extensive travels? Please leave them in the comments!

If you want to get to know Steve and his photography better, I suggest you visit his photography site. You can also follow him on Facebook. You may also be interested in checking out his travel-photography books:

Or why not consider joining one of his tours and getting some hands-on photography instruction? It would be an experience to go down in the annals!

NOTE: If you are a travel-photographer and would like to be interviewed for this series, please send your information to ml@thedisplacednation.com.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation and much, much more! Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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For this up-and-coming visual storyteller and lover of travel, a picture says…

Jamie March 2015 collage

Canon zoom lens, photo credit: Morguefiles; Jamie in Bangkok, Thailand, for the Loy Krathong festival (November 2013).

James King is back with his ever-popular “A picture says…” column. English by birth, James is now semi-retired in Thailand. If you like what you see here, be sure to check out his blog, Jamoroki.

My March guest is 22-year-old Singaporean Jamie Chan. She shares stories and images from her travels on her blog, No Foreign Lands, while shooting or writing for clients in the photography, lifestyle or travel genres.

Ever since she started photography in 2009, Jamie is rarely seen without a camera. Named one of Singapore’s 10 Best Young Photographers, she is an ardent traveler and enjoys documenting local cultures and lifestyles.

A specialist volunteer for Singapore International Foundation and various animal welfare groups, Jamie also finds time for good causes.

In addition, she sings in Schola Cantorum Singapore and plays the cello. She has clearly been allotted more hours than me in a day!

* * *

Hi, Jamie, and welcome to TDN. I’ve been looking forward to this interview since I first saw your street photography. For one so young you have travelled a fair bit and captured some great images. Can you tell us where you were born and when you spread your wings to start travelling?
I was born and raised on the sunny island of Singapore. My first solo trip was to Indonesia, when I was selected to be a photojournalist delegate of Singapore for the ASEAN Cultural Youth Camp of 2011, held in Yogyarkarta. At the time I was doing my final year project for my degree in Visual Communications (I majored in photography). After the camp finished, I decided to spend an entire month travelling around and documenting the culture and lifestyle of the peoples of Central Java. It was a big learning curve and stretched my photographic skills. I did not have the luxury of an editor to tell me what to look out for, and it was hard to get feedback from my lecturers because getting a wifi spot with Internet was like hitting the jackpot. The experience taught me to reflect, make decisions and work with what I had. I had to figure out how to shape and edit down my stories.

You were only 19 then. How did your parents feel about your decision to travel solo?
They were of course worried sick but came around eventually and even joined me for some parts of the trip. After all, what better way to spend time with your parents than on the back of a motorcycle going at God-only-knows what speed—’cause the speedometer was broken!

That must have been some trip! So once you caught the travel bug, where else did you go?
As a visual storyteller, I am always on the lookout for subjects that would make interesting photo essays. My blog, No Foreign Lands, started as a way to tell my mother that I was still alive while on the road. It has now become a platform for me to tell my stories and share my images with the world. Asia is one of my favourite places to travel. There is an incredible amount of interconnected history among the various countries. I am always learning.

I agree. Asia is a treasure trove for us storytellers and photography buffs. I only wish I had started my travels at an earlier age. So which countries have you visited so far?
There is a quote from Robert Louis Stevenson that goes:

I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. The great affair is to move.

When I got back to Singapore after my Indonesia trip, I could not keep still. I was hooked on travelling, exploring and waking up to something new every day. I needed to move; soon after I graduated I booked my next trip—and I’ve never looked back since. Off the top of my head, I’ve been to Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Nepal, Indonesia, India, China and Australia.

That’s eight countries in less than four years; a lot more than most people visit in a lifetime. So tell us about where you are right now and why.
I’m actually back home in Singapore! I’ll mostly be based here for the remainder of 2015. That said, I can never stay put for long—I’ve taken three trips out of the country this year and it is only March! I am in the midst of getting a certification for my Japanese-language studies which I hope to finish by next year. Once that’s done, I intend to work and stay in Japan if possible.

“As a person who deals with visuals before words…”

I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you. I do believe Japan is a beautiful country which offers photographers some great opportunities. So now let’s see a few of your photos that capture some of your favourite memories.
One of the first stories I did in Indonesia involved visiting various “home industries” for a glimpse of what villagers do for a living. This man was performing a rather mundane job cranking out tiles with this old machine. It requires so much strength (I tried turning it and it barely budges):

Indonesia_machine

This Central Javenese man makes 500 tiles by hand every day using a cranky manual machine; photo credit: Jamie Chan.

I photograph Thaipusam, a Hindu festival celebrated by Tamil communities, almost every year in Singapore; I took this picture in 2014. There is something about the spirit of the festival that never ceases to amaze me each time I document it:

The unforgettable Chetty Pusam in Singapore; photo credit: Jamie Chan.

Singapore’s unforgettable Chetty Pusam; photo credit: Jamie Chan.

I was very fortunate to be able to make it down to the final few performances of the Melbourne Docklands Blues Festival and photographed a set by Jimi Hocking.He is an incredible musician and performer and this image just reminds me of Guitar Gods and their worshippers:

Can Jimi the Human be real? Photo credit: Jamie Chan.

Can Jimi the Human be real? Photo credit: Jamie Chan.

My favourite places to take photos so far are India, Nepal and Australia—but picking three pictures to illustrate this was really hard as each of these countries has so many amazing places to shoot… Anyway, let me start with the Great Ocean and its apostles. While it may seem like a tourism pilgrimage, when you actually stay and watch the light, you will see that every moment reveals a new side to the gorgeous apostles:

The Great Ocean Road in Australia; photo credit: Jamie Chan.

A couple of the Twelve Apostles along Australia’s Great Ocean Road; photo credit: Jamie Chan.

This is a stunning picture, Jamie. You have made a simple composition with no clutter and very imposing subjects. I love it.
Moving on to Kathmandu. Where do I begin? Within the valley wherever you are, the Himalayan mountain line is always watching you. I felt a sense of peace throughout my stay in Nepal. It is kind of hard to describe the feeling. I recommend you go there yourself. Here is one memento:

Kathamandu; photo credit: Jamie Chan.

One of Kathamandu‘s peaceful oases; photo credit: Jamie Chan.

Ayuthaya in Thailand is incredible. I was fortunate enough to gain access to its inner chambers to photograph some of the world’s oldest paintings—an incredibly humbling moment. Here’s an external shot of the ruins that were left after the Burmese invasion:

Ayuthaya; photo credit: Jamie Chan.

The ancient Siamese kingdom of Ayuthaya; photo credit: Jamie Chan.

The more-than-a-thousand-year-old Khmer temples of northeast Thailand are really impressive and give us a glimpse of how the Khmer Empire stretched from Cambodia into what is now a large area of Thailand. Tell me, do you feel reserved about taking photos of people, particularly when they are conscious of you doing so?
I try my best to observe and read a person’s body language. My camera is always with me and there is always a silent communication of sorts whenever I lift it to my eye. But there is actually nothing to feel reserved or shy about as the most that can happen is that your subject will say no or even hit you(!) if you are really obnoxious.

“I also happen to speak two and a half languages. The half language is Mandarin.”

I mainly do landscape but when I do shoot people I am the same. I hate to take “posed for” photos so I hardly ever get into a discussion. I take the pic or I don’t. Do you ever ask permission before taking people’s photographs? How do you get around any problem of language?
Since I am always reading a person’s body language before I shoot, I generally do not ask for permission. If I do ask and do not speak their language, I rely on improvised sign language—pointing to my camera and nodding with a big smile on my face. It’s worked so far.

Would you say that photography and the ability to be able to capture something unique which will never be seen again is a powerful force for you?
Yes, most definitely. As cliché as this may sound, the camera allows us to stop time for a split second and record the moment, preserve a memory.

So when did you realise the power of photography, and how has it changed you?
It happened by accident, like so many things in life, while I was looking through old photos of my family. I realised then that if no one had taken these photos, I would never have remembered how my mum looked like all those years ago.

“Who says the iPhone can’t photograph the moon!”

I know what you mean. For me, a picture is a diary of an event in visual form. The photographer “writes” about it in a way no one else could.Now for the technical stuff. What kind of camera and lenses you use?
I work with a rangefinder, the Leica M-E. My 35mm Summilux lens is stuck to the camera body most of the time as it is just such a beautiful focal length which allows me to respond quickly to different situations. On certain occasions, maybe twice a year, I will use the 50mm Summilux just to get a tighter shot. Other than that, my iPhone 5s takes wicked macro shots.

That’s interesting because although I have become attached to the versatility of my 18–55mm Canon lens there are times when I can’t get in close enough, so I need to add say a 70–200mm to my kit. And now I need an iPhone 5s!!!!! And which software do you use for post-processing?
I use Lightroom for post processing as I shoot entirely in raw image format.

“The perfect camera is the one with you.”

Join the club. Finally, do you have any advice for wannabe photographers who are traveling or living abroad?
I’m not sure what advice I can give for wannabe photographers, though that hoary old chestnut “Don’t quit your day job” has just now floated into my mind. I say that because I sense that the golden age of photography is mostly over. Having said that, if you have the passion and perseverance to live, breathe and eat photography, press on and live it. But also remember that technology has made it so much easier to learn a new creative skill. Try your hand at video, writing or music. Use your creativity, mash them all together, and see what you come up with. At the end of the day, as long as your art moves someone and you are able to live comfortably with what you have, you know you are on the right track.

I actually think that is very good non-technical advice Jamie and I’d like to thank you for taking the time to tell your story so far in this interview. I am sure you will, undoubtedly, inspire other young and maybe not so young people.

Editor’s note: All subheds are excerpted from Jamie’s blog.

* * *

Readers, what do you make of Jamie’s experiences? If you have any questions for her on his travels and/or photos, please leave them in the comments!

If you want to get to know Jamie and her creative works better, I suggest you visit her photography site and check out her posts on her photography/travel blog, No Foreign Lands. You can also follow her on twitter and Instagram and/or like her blog’s Facebook page.

(If you are a travel-photographer and would like to be interviewed by James for this series, please send your information to ml@thedisplacednation.com.)

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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GLOBAL FOOD GOSSIP: ‘Tis the season to be jolly—and for that I recommend crunchy sweet potatoes

Crunchy Sweet Potato Collage

Joanna Masters-Maggs portrait; “Pecan Sweet Potato Casserole,” by Vox Efx and “Thanksgiving feast,”  by Star Mama, both via Flickr (CC-BY 2.0).

Joanna Masters-Maggs was displaced from her native England 17 years ago, and has since attempted to re-place herself in the USA, Holland, Brazil, Malaysia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and now France. She describes herself as a “food gossip”, saying: “I’ve always enjoyed cooking and trying out new recipes. Overseas, I am curious as to what people buy and from where. What is in the baskets of my fellow shoppers? What do they eat when they go home at night?”

* * *

Last month I had intended to contribute a pleasant little piece invoking “memories of Thanksgivings past”—but I am afraid I just wasn’t feeling in a terribly thankful sort of mood.

That was a shame, really, as Thanksgiving is one of the few holidays I have been lucky enough to experience overseas that my crabby little heart actually embraces. As a foreigner living in the United States, my experience could be likened to that of a grateful orphan, adopted warmly by a family as a vaguely interesting addition to proceedings.

Really, what is there not to like? Good food, and plenty of it, a lot of wine, usually in the host family’s nice crystal—and ABSOLUTELY NO PRESENT-GIVING other than generous hostess gifts.

Et tu, le shopping?

It was actually the contemplation of present-BUYING that prompted my spell of bad humour. Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving—which Americans traditionally spend at pre-Christmas sales, in a frenzy that can take on the appearance of contact sports with credit cards—has now arrived in France, my current home.

France!

It seems that even the French have lost their ability to say non to foreign habits that threaten their own culture.

Le shopping, too. 😦

Veggies, glorious veggies!

All of that said, I regret that I never sat down and wrote the column I originally had in mind. Soon after I made that decision, the thought of those cosy Thanksgivings where outdoor grey light gives way to the warmth of candles and fires began to get the better of my jour noir.

Especially when I remembered the BEST THING OF ALL about Thanksgiving: it affords an opportunity for Americans to demonstrate their magical ability to convert healthy, vitamin-brimming vegetables into artery-clogging, heart-stopping not-much-time-left-bombs.

The general principle seems to be to cook out as much of the vegetable’s vitamin content as possible, along with its texture and possibly colour. Next comes the flavour makeover. Those green beans must taste of ham hock and bacon, not bean. The loss of beanly texture is viewed as desirable—and really, who enjoys the blackboard squeak of green beans on teeth?

However, I cannot approve of the makeover given to the sweet potato, whose texture when cooked is always soft. Sweet potatoes require a little more bite—and how!

The joy of this vegetable is that, even after the rather horrifying treatment meted out to it, often involving marshmallows, the B vitamins remain intact allowing it to count as a health food still.

God Bless America indeed.

Let’s talk turkey, or where’s the beef?

If there are to be any complaints about Thanksgiving and, given my heritage, there must be complaints, it would be about the bird. As my own father once said of Christmas lunch in the UK:

If it’s meant to be a fancy there should be proper meat.

For him this means beef, I believe. I’m open to other meats, other birds even, but I agree with my dad’s sentiment that the Turkey is a duffer in pretty much every respect. Even at its most organic, just shot and plucked best, it’s just a stomach filler for crowds. Does anyone, I wonder, ever consider serving two smaller but glorious geese rather than one ho hum turkey?

On the bright side, though, who needs meat at all when you can have sides like green-bean-and-bacon casserole?

Since my mood has lifted somewhat with all this talk of misbehaving veggies, I have decided to share the cheer by offering you the sweet potato recipe I love. It was given to me years ago and involves brown sugar, pecans and cinnamon baked to a crisp and crumble like finish—plenty of crunch and bite!

It’s wonderful for Christmas and it’s wonderful anytime. Bon appétit!

pecan sweet potato casserole

Sweet Potato Casserole

Ingredients:
½ kilo (just over a pound) of sweet potatoes
115g (half a cup) white sugar
2 large eggs
salt to taste
50g (3.5 tbsp) butter
120 ml (half a cup) of milk
1tsp of cinnamon powder

For the topping:
100g (half a cup) brown sugar
40 g (one third a cup) plain flour
40g (one third of a stick) butter
140 g (around one and one third cups) chopped pecans—you can substitute with other nuts if necessary, but I do think pecan is the best for this as it has a pleasing sweetness. (Walnuts, the natural substitute, can be a little bitter.)

Method
Cover sweet potatoes with cold water and bring to boil. Cook gently until tender.

Mash sweet potatoes with the sugar, beaten eggs, salt, butter milk and vanilla extract if desired.

Spread the sweet potato mixture into a casserole dish measuring 22 x 33 centimeters (8.5″ x 13″).

Preheat the oven to 165°C (around 350ºF).

To make the topping, rub the butter into the flour with your fingertips until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Stir in the sugar and nuts. Sprinkle evenly over the potato mixture.

Bake for half an hour until golden brown—keep an eye on it, though, as pecans burn easily.

* * *

Fellow Food Gossips,do you have any post-Thanksgiving (or pre-Christmas) food stories & recipes to share? And also please let us know: do you agree with Joanna’s take on the sweet potato?

STAY TUNED for our next fab post!

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The opening ceremony of the London Olympics — from an expat who witnessed Beijing’s spectacle firsthand

As regular readers will know, The Displaced Nation has some special connections to Britain. We therefore held our collective breath when the Olympic ceremony opened on Friday evening in London. How would the Brits measure up to the Chinese extravaganza of four years ago? Britain is after all a declining power — which is not exactly true of China! Today we turn to guest poster Shannon Young, an expat in Hong Kong who has written a book about her firsthand experience of attending the Beijing Games, for a verdict.

Four years ago, 2,008 drummers opened the Summer Olympics in Beijing with a thunderous rhythm heard ’round the world. Spectacular feats of coordination, drama and energy followed, wowing the world with the precision and ambition of the production.

Heralded as the greatest live performance in history, Beijing’s opening ceremony was a tough act to follow.

It was a tough act for me to follow as well. I’d been in the stands as the rumble of the drums swelled through Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium. But as the opening ceremony of the London Games was about to begin, I found myself at the kitchen table of my grandparents’ home in Oregon (I am back in the United States for a visit) watching a live stream on my computer.

Oh we can be heroes…just for one day

A landscape that looked rather like a shire appeared, complete with sheep and idyllically dressed country folk. The agrarian scene was quickly replaced with the frenetic energy of the Industrial Revolution, but the contrast was obvious: London was not trying to “beat” China.

Quirky, funny and nuanced. Those three words characterize the July 27th, 2012, ceremony. It displayed the heart and humor for which the British are famous — especially in the form of Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean), whose rendition of “Chariots of Fire” completely stole the show.

London brought the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics back down to a human level. It was no Beijing, but it was the kind of show that speaks to people.

Famous for such films as Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire, director Danny Boyle infused the London ceremony with a cinematic flare.

Like many other spectators around the world, I loved the short film in which James Bond picked up Queen Elizabeth in a helicopter, which they (or their stunt doubles) proceeded to jump out of, for their “entrance” into the stadium.

There were other nods to cinematography throughout the production, including to Boyle’s own films, mixing the mediums of live performance and cinema. The costumes were intricate when viewed through a zoomed-in camera, but I had to wonder how much of this was for the camera and not the live audience. The spectators in the stands may not have been able to enjoy the details.

Only rock ‘n roll (but I like it)

There was a rock-and-roll feeling to the show. The dance numbers were more like big parties than expertly timed performances. They were full of mini-storylines and surprises.

The segment that began with a nightmare of the villains of children’s literature ended with the raucous defeat of a gigantic Lord Voldemort by none other than Mary Poppins.

The soundtrack was fun and familiar, liberally paying homage to Britain’s many contributions to culture.

A high-octane production like the Olympics opening ceremony needs to have quiet moments, too.

In Beijing there were eerie performances, such as a single dancer gliding across a glowing scroll.

In London, the quiet moments were solemn. There was a moving dance performance dedicated to the victims of the July 7th bombings on London transport, and a moment of silence for those who fell in the two world wars.

New takes on old classics

The Parade of Nations was faster than usual, bringing 204 teams into the stadium in record time.

The production culminated in the lighting of the torch, which was done in a particularly elegant fashion. David Beckham delivered the torch to retired British rower Sir Stephen Redgrave in a neon speedboat on the Thames.

In a touching act, Britain’s venerated Olympian then delivered the torch to seven promising young athletes, who lit the torch together. The torch itself was composed of many copper petals which rose together on long stems to create the Olympic cauldron.

London’s opening ceremony drew many laughs and perhaps a few tears. There weren’t as many breathtaking moments as in Beijing, but the show was like the British: quirky, personable, and utterly self-assured.

Shannon Young is an American writer currently living in Hong Kong. She is the author of The Olympics Beat: A Spectator’s Memoir of Beijing. She writes a blog called A Kindle in Hong Kong and tweets @ShannonYoungHK.

EDITOR’S NOTE: We will be giving away several copies of Shannon Young’s mini travel memoir of the Beijing Olympics this month. The first will go to a commenter on this post — please share your favorite moment from London’s opening ceremony, or a memorable moment from a previous Olympics.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s Expat Moment with Anthony Windram!

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Images: A London Olympics sign courtesy e-costa on Flickr; author Shannon Young and two of her photos from the opening ceremony of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

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