Tips on Cultural Immersion: Christine Barrely on Life as a Michelin Travel Guidebook Author & Photographer

Tips on Cultural Immersion: Christine Barrely on Life as a Michelin Travel Guidebook Author & Photographer
 

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Photo: Christine Barrely

Photo: Christine Barrely

Christine Barrely is the author of more than twenty travel books published by Hachette Livres and Michelin Guides, among others. Countries she has written about include her native France as well as Argentina, Croatia, England, Greece, Ireland, Spain and different parts of the U.S.A

Friendship with Christine has been one of the many unexpected benefits of becoming a home exchanger. My husband Tom and I spent a couple of weeks in the home of Christine and her husband Pierre in the small village of Magrie in the Languedoc-Roussillon area in southwest corner of France, while they explored New England from our home outside Boston.

Once we reached the agreement to proceed with an exchange, the emails began flying fast and furious and have continued since. Christine and I discovered a great deal of synchronicity in our interests—including, but not limited to, a love of quotations, photography and travel. A friend who looked at Christine’s book of images from Brittany remarked “You have a doppelganger,” marveling that our “eye” was so similar.

I met Christine in person only briefly, when she and Pierre arrived at my home, and we enjoyed a short visit before Tom and I headed off to France. I was rather in awe of all her accomplishments and she shared both her experience and encouragement, pointing out the futility of forcing things, and that “They will come.” It was a message I needed to hear, as was her observation in this interview that once you find your personal “center,” you will be propelled toward your place in the world.

Meg: You are from Brittany—can you describe the area?

Photo: Christine Barrely

Photo: Christine Barrely

Christine: Brittany is a broad peninsula sticking out in the Atlantic Ocean, on the west coast of France. It is a Celtic country, deeply influenced by legends and mysticism, full of colorful traditions. The inland landscapes are forests, gentle hills and austere medieval cities built in grey stones. In King Arthur’s legend, very popular in the French medieval poetry, this is supposed to be the country of the valiant knight Lancelot and of Merlin the magician. Even though Brittany is a deeply Catholic country, it has kept its old fascination for the mysteries of the unseen. It is a land of ancient chapels, ornate with complicated sculptures, full of garish and naïve sacred art.

But to me, Brittany is essentially synonymous with the Atlantic. Its coasts vary from craggy heads, barren moors growing purple heather, narrow sandy coves, long dunes battered by the waves and tiny fishing ports smelling of fish, drying nets and fresh paint. I was born by the sea and lived most of my life near it, until the last few years. I suppose I actually never recovered from leaving it. Later on I would photography it tirelessly.

Meg: Has an unexpected occurrence ever had a profound effect on your day—or life, for that matter?

Photo: Christine Barrely

Photo: Christine Barrely

Christine: My professional life suddenly took a very unexpected turn when I was in my early thirties. I had always been very literary-minded, liking to write, and all my hobbies were turning around photography and artistic concerns. But for some complicated and wrong reasons, I had trained as a physical therapist. At that time, I was starting to suffer from very severe back trouble and was seriously considering changing course.

My husband was busy with his advertising and communication agency. Now and then he would ask for my opinion on projects. He was planning to launch a magazine about Brittany. They were completing the first issue, when the chief editor he had hired gave her notice and left town. From one day to the next, he was left with articles not finished, missing photos, etc. He asked me to take a look at what was written, as he thought I was up to it. I did and then he asked me to write a couple of short articles and go round a photo agency to choose some illustration. I wasn’t very confident in my capabilities but this was only supposed to be a stand-in until he found a new editor.

 
Photo: Christine Barrely

Photo: Christine Barrely

 

Soon after the magazine was published, they received positive mail about my articles and some local papers started to ask where I had trained as they had liked my work. I was really dumbfounded and felt very self-conscious to have been noticed. By the following month, my husband had not found anybody to replace the editor and he asked me again for support. This was the beginning of it all. I just decided to take the chance. Week after week, I went to the firm, tried to learn with the others, did a lot of reading, worked just for fun, not being paid. I was still getting a very encouraging response from the readers. Then I started to use my own photos as it was much more economical for the business. Within six months, I was really enjoying myself. I never looked back after that. I took to writing regularly and never stopped since.

Meg: Can you describe how you came to have an interest in photography?

Christine: Like everybody else, I enjoyed shooting my children when they were babies, and taking photos on holiday, but I always thought serious photo was a professional thing. I only had a very poor compact camera and my biggest thrill was more to look at things than to try to fix them on film. I think though that I was already very sensitive to lights, colors and shapes. I used to look at the landscape through my gathered hands like through binoculars, to isolate and magnify something from the rest.

Then I went into writing for the magazine. I would search through image banks or work with a photographer, but I was often frustrated that they would not see what I saw. One Christmas, I was given a really good camera. I started to shoot, using different lenses, experimenting and so on. I did some real awful things, but more and more, I was satisfied that what was coming out on the picture was what I had seen. It gave me the power to show just what I wanted.

Photography is very partial and subjective. Somehow, it allows you to distort reality. At the same time, it isolates you, as you are on your own behind it, in your very personal and particular world. I can easily spend a whole day shooting in twenty square meters. When I was in Iceland for example, I’d stand by a mud pool for two hours, quite content just to wait for the light to change or the mud to shape a different pattern. I can walk in a city without any goal, looking for the odd graffiti, for a quaint detail or for a prosaic scene. With a camera, I am never ever bored.

Meg: How did you embark on a career as a travel guide book writer?

Christine: I was approached by a major publisher to read a manuscript they were not sure about. They wanted an outside critical view on it. They offered me good money and three weeks time for that. But after just two hours of reading, I realized it was really bad and could definitely not be published. So I wrote a note justifying that judgment, explaining that I could not take the contract and the money as I had already reached the conclusion. It is when they offered me to write the book instead.

It was my first one, not so much a travel book than a cultural book on Brittany. It was followed by many more and I started to write for several different publishers, one or two books a year. Recently I went on to subjects completely different from tourism and culture. Actually, I didn’t realize at the time, but it was a complete turn-around in my life, a new career that I had not even planned. But that door opened before me and I just took it. From being just a once a year affair, travel became my breadwinner.

Meg: I'm proud to own your beautiful book of photography of Brittany—how did the creation of that come about?

Christine: Well, it is just one of these things that seem to be destined to happen.

Photo: Christine Barrely

Photo: Christine Barrely

Photo: Christine Barrely

Photo: Christine Barrely

I had in mind to view everything I saw through the prism of colors. I would go out shooting photos and would think green or red or pink or yellow and I would shoot only something that would enhance the color chosen that particular day. At first, it was a slow job as my eye was not trained to spot immediately the right subject or the right composition. Then it became a habit. I started to classify my photos by colors, then, inside each color, I would arrange them by shape so that put together they would compose yet another picture.

On the day I was going to Paris to discuss the guidebook, I had prepared a file with my project and intended to meet several publishers who were interested. I was meeting with the one who wanted me to write the guidebook, when the woman saw the file “Colors/Brittany” in my bag. She asked what it was. I had not intended to submit it to them but I told her. She asked to see it, then went to show it to a colleague. She came back and asked if I could give them the first option on the project until the next day. And the following morning, she called me with a firm and interesting offer. So I cancelled all the others and the book went under way, without having to try that hard!

Meg: What is the process involved in writing a guidebook?

Christine: Over the years, I reached a very trusting relationship with my publishers. Every year, when they prepare the planning of the destinations they would like to cover, they get in touch with me and ask me what would be my choice. When that is fixed, I start the preparation, the research. It is about geography and history, politics and economy, but also literature, cinema, music, traditions. I read reference books as well as writers from the country, trying to extract their particular sensitivity. Then I get down to preparing the actual stay there, which can last up to three or four months. I plan out the routes and general organization of the book, deciding on what to emphasize.

Once in the country, it involves being very flexible, open to changes or new avenues of exploration. It means keeping an ear to the ground, being ready to talk with people and, mostly, to let them talk. It is about being curious, inquisitive sometimes. And most of all, it means keeping very long hours, not necessarily knowing in the morning where one is going to sleep at night. It means long trips alone, unending drives or bus rides, long and tiring walks. On the fastidious side is the gathering of all the practical information about transportation, business hours, hotels and restaurants to recommend and so forth.

When all that is completed, I come home and settle down to write—a completely different pace. After being months on the go, one has to sit down and put in writing something that will be at the same time attractive to read, practical for the traveller and meticulously constructed so to deliver the information in a logical and intelligent pattern. A lot of the information has to be cross checked. This takes up to six months for a regular travel guide.

Photo: Christine Barrely

Photo: Christine Barrely

Besides the actual writing, I have taken up editing. For my books I usually take a second writer to share the load. For large countries like Argentina, it is necessary or the trip there would take too long. Then, as well as my own texts, I edit hers (or his), check the typography, rewrite and reorganize the information if necessary, layout the pages, include cartography, iconography, to eventually deliver the book ready to print. This is another slow process, demanding patience and exactness, while always keeping very tight deadlines. Sometimes everything goes smoothly, other times it is just mind breaking all the way through.

The author might be very good for the “trip” part of it but useless at organizing the information, careless about the exactness of things. Sometimes I just have to rewrite everything because the style is not appropriate, too pompous or too trivial, other times the chosen plan to present a region is just not realistic. Once, for example, I was puzzled to find that a particular author had very different styles depending on the area he was writing about, one chapter would be like a post graduate thesis, then next would be like cheap tabloid style. I went on to Google random entries and discovered that he had just grossly copied whole articles! I then found out that he had spent most of his time in the country getting himself invited here and there on the strength of his assignment, having drinks in fancy places but doing none of the checking and visiting demanded by the job. So on his return, he just went on the web and collected any information he would find!

This is one of the dangers and limits of this work: more and more writers just think Google and the web in general are the solution, when it is not just plagiarizing other books. One has to be very ethical and honest about it. Nothing can be a substitute of a thorough first hand discovery of the country and of a careful and critical personal research. And a lot of it is not half as glamorous and exciting as readers would imagine! The days are long and often repetitive, visiting everything, going in and out of hotels, bars and restaurants, checking museums and monuments at top speed when you wished you had more time. The planning is always just beyond what any normal person would be able to keep, so you are forever running and feeling guilty not to have covered even more.

Talking to Local People Sheds New Light on History & Politics

Meg: How many guidebooks have you written? Can you single out a few and describe the experience?

Christine: I have written more than twenty travel books. Each one has been a special experience. The cultural richness is a very strong incentive. To be forever learning new stuff is very challenging. It keeps my mind-boggling all the time. Even things that I am not going to write about, like geopolitics or the economy throw a different light on things, so I love to investigate this.

As an example, I wrote two books on Croatia, spent many months there and did extensive reading on the Balkans war, trying to understand things from each community’s point of view. In our big western nations, we tend to have a very simplistic way of judging things, using our own standards and cultural landmarks to explain the way the world is going. I found that getting down on the ground gives you a different grasp of things.

Photo: Christine Barrely

Photo: Christine Barrely

About Croatia, I was deeply concerned by all the abandoned minefields left in many places, by the deep scars left by the battles, by the hatred still very much present in people’s heart as they recalled events of the conflict. Visiting blasted Vukovar, close to the Croatian border with Serbia, was like a physical punch in the stomach, seeing the absolute desolation of the incomplete reconstruction everywhere in the villages, witnessing the obvious gap between the two adverse populations even years after the war ended, measuring the bitterness and the barely checked violence that could surge anytime, like during a sport meeting, when teams of opposite background would meet.

You realize then that if the international community is quite happy with the way things are going, in the field, it is a different matter altogether, dissatisfaction and rivalries are just beneath the surface. I got people to talk, each side telling their own stories, some telling about the humiliations and the provocations, the bombings, the schrapnel everywhere, the snipers, others talking about reprisals, mass graves, killings of the sick and the wounded. Because communities don’t want to communicate anymore, the smallest event takes a mythical dimension, like feeding a kind of legend. I met wonderful people on both sides, all deeply wounded, beyond recovery, at least for their generation. This touched me and left me immensely sad. Scars of war are a terrible thing. Of course, I would not write about all this in a travel book, but it enlightened my grasp of that part of the country.

Photo: Christine Barrely

Photo: Christine Barrely

I then wanted to pass over to Bosnia, Serbia, Hungary and Slovenia. It was just like peeping through a barely open door. These countries share three wholly different cultures, Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim. The borders are very intricated. With these go segregation, xenophobia and even downright racism sometimes. I remember sad Mostar, in Bosnia, with its destroyed beautiful ottoman bridge. International funds managed to rebuild it as splendid as before. Tourists flock in the old medieval streets but the town is cut in two parts, one basically each side of the river, minarets facing church spires. Depending on which side of the city you arrive, if you ask for directions, nobody is ever going to send you on the other side, just like pretending it doesn’t exist. It is really a weird atmosphere.

On a much lighter note, the thing I enjoy most is meeting people of all avenues of life. When I arrive somewhere, I usually take a walk around, without any exact plan. I just let my steps take me, sit down in cafés, in town parks, going to the market. When you travel alone, things happen much more easily. People sort of feel sorry for you, especially when you are a woman, and they don’t feel threatened, so conversations flow very quickly. Even with the language barrier, you get to communicate.

This is the best way for a travel writer to get interesting bits of information, to know the places where the locals go, what they do, what they talk about. Very often, I was invited to visit people’s homes, learn of their tradition, of the family history, many details giving texture to my understanding of the place. I learn to cook unexpected fares, got to taste new things, attended private religious celebrations, slept on the floor carpets in Turkey, got eaten away by bugs in a grotty place in Argentina, ate unidentifiable insects in China, chewed coca leaves with Indians from the Andes.

Photo: Christine Barrely

Photo: Christine Barrely

To me travel is about people before everything else. But as a photographer, the wonders of nature are another great source of happiness. I have only seen a very modest part of our planet but it always leaves me awestruck. Places like Iceland and its geological chaos, the South American altiplano with the multi-colored mountains, lagunas and salt deserts, the lake villages in China with old men fishing with birds, white cubical houses in the Greek islands are just as many thrilling challenges for the eye.

Over the years, I started to acquire a completely different approach to travel. The essential is not to plan too much, but to be prepared to let things happen. Because they do happen. One has to admit that not knowing what the day has in store is not such a tragedy. On the contrary, it is quite liberating. You think you are going to explore one subject and you end up doing something else you would never have imagined.

Meg: Have you ever gotten lost and had an experience you wouldn’t have wanted to miss?

Photo: Christine Barrely

Photo: Christine Barrely

Christine: To me this is what travel is about, being ready for the unknown. If you prepare too much, if you know in advance what you are going to do, nothing very special is likely to happen. One day in China, I went to take a bus and asked at the counter for the ticket. When I got to the bus, the guy told me I had got the wrong ticket and that I was booked for a completely different place. I did not understand how far it was but I decided to board that bus. I was the only non-Chinese on board. We drove for three hours and arrived in one of the most beautiful villages I ever visited, very secluded. It was like going back two centuries. And that particular day, all my photos failed (a guy in a photo shop opened my camera) so it is like nothing was left, a bit like the imaginary journey of Alice in Wonderland!

Meg: Have you ever experienced a scary situation when travelling?

Christine: I suppose I’ve done a lot of very unreasonable things over the years, like driving dangerous roads, going to unsecure places at night, meeting rough people, but I was never really frightened.

Photo: Christine Barrely

Photo: Christine Barrely

My worst memory, and at the same time one of the most impressive, is of the day I went to Shiprock, in New Mexico. I was driving a small car, I had decided to spend the afternoon at the Shiprock pinnacle, a sacred spot for the Navajos. As I neared that mountain, sticking out of the desert like a nasty shard, I really felt a sense of magic. The light was very odd, the way it is just before a storm, dramatic below dark grey clouds. I was just fascinated and left my car, starting to take photos. I spent several hours circling around the steep cliffs of solidified lava.

Then, noticing some tracks leading away from the rock, I thought I could take nice pictures from a distance. I looked at the map and saw that one of these tracks was leading to another main road I could take to get back. I took what looked like the main one. The afternoon had become evening. I stopped several times for photos, not realizing that the track was getting narrow and deeply entrenched that it would be impossible to turn around. In places I could hardly progress as the bottom of the car was trailing on the ground. It was dark by then and I could still not turn round anywhere. I put my headlights on. I drove on for hours, but the main road was still nowhere in sight. I was lost.

The car was getting low on gas and I was feeling like a fool, thinking I would have to spend the night there in the desert? At the beginning of April, nights get very cold. I was just wearing Bermuda shorts and a tee shirt. The wonderful empty and eerie feeling I had felt at the foot of the rock has changed into something almost malevolent—or so I imagined. And then, as I was just going to give up and wait for dawn, I saw a moving ray of light in the distance ahead. It was the lights of a car, going at full speed from left to right, it was the main road! I just kept mumbling “please, let me get to it, right to it, no more bends” and I eventually reached the road. I just made it to the junction and the gas station. I don’t think I could have driven two more miles! It was about 1:00 a.m. At the time, it was a bit stressful but looking back on it, I brought back nice pictures and never forgot Shiprock!

Meg: I know you recently visited your son in Cameroon. Can you describe the visit and the area?

Photo: Christine Barrely

Photo: Christine Barrely

Christine: He just finished university over a year ago and qualified as a civil engineer. He knew he wanted to work in under-developed countries. He looked for a mission in Africa and was offered a job in Cameroon. We decided to go and visit him last February.

It was our first time in Central Africa. Cameroon used to be a French colony and the French are still very much present there. What really struck me right away – you can’t miss it as it is so open – is the omnipresence of corruption at every level. This is very disturbing as officials and police don’t even try to hide. It is very frustrating as the general population is extremely poor while the country itself has everything to prosper. The climate is good (lots of rain as it is near the Equator), the land is fertile, they have many riches like wood, minerals and even oil. But most of the population does not see any of it.

Photo: Christine Barrely

Photo: Christine Barrely

As soon as you leave the main streets of the capital, you meet terrible poverty, kids begging all the time, many of them missing school, especially in the rural areas. The condition of women is appalling. With Animism and Islam being very present, men have many wives (it is a show of wealth as they have to buy them) and many children. As they have paid for the wives, men mostly think that they have to make it profitable, so they send the women to work, while they themselves stay chatting together under the trees. The agriculture is mainly resting on the work of the women and children. Owning many wives means even more wealth for a man as he can thus cultivate more land.

We visited lots of different villages and noticed the poverty of the lodgings and schools. Kids can only get tuition part time, having to share a teacher between several classes. Then the classes are just dust floors, with a straw roof over a few beams. It is not unusual to see the children sitting on the floor with the exercise books on their lap. Most of the time, they get only one meal a day (and this is a fortunate country as far as Africa goes!). All of this drew our attention much more than the tourist side of things, even though Cameroon is a very nice summing up of Africa: green, humid, stuffy and lush in the south, near the equator, desert-like, dry and rugged in the North where the Sahel is near. You can get tropical beaches by the Guinean Gulf, tropical forest in the west, tea and coffee plantations in the mountains of the northwest, lions, giraffes, scenic mountains and deserts in the north. The villages, with their small huts are very quaint but it is difficult to ignore the very poor condition of the inhabitants.

Meg: I know you and your husband Pierre collect tribal art. Could you talk a little bit about this interest?

Photo: Christine Barrely

Photo: Christine Barrely

Christine: I collect rare textiles—costumes, ritual dolls and bits and pieces. To me these objects are more reminders of past experiences, even though their aesthetics is very important. I value a Tibetan costume, richly embroidered and decorated with silver plates, but only because it reminds me of a very special trip to China where I was meeting with my second son who was student there. We bought it together. I love also an antique ritual Tibetan painting on leather, because it was my first successful bargaining on my own in a Chinese market and I was very proud of myself. We don’t necessarily know the real story behind the object. We realize full well that the vendor can tell whatever he likes. But we always have what we put in it.

Meg: You travel both as a vocation and an avocation—how has writing professionally about other lands affected your travel experiences for pleasure?

Christine: To be honest, doing this professionally spoils it when I go on holidays, at least for the first few days, as I am too alert to whatever might be of interest. I am trying too hard to make the best use of every minute. I keep track of road numbers, timetables, all sorts of practicals. But when I unwind a bit, the best is left which is the speed to find the good places (experience!), the ability to make friends quickly and the capacity to keep totally calm when things go wrong.

Respect the Cultural Values of Others As Well as Your Own

Meg: It seems to me that inherent in traveling is a combination of self-sufficiency and an openness to what the Universe will lead you to—would you agree?

Christine: I never forget that one can’t be like drift wood on the sea. Sometimes you do have to swim against the currents. In travel and in life, nothing is just rosy. You may encounter adverse situations, accidents, even worse as far as life is concerned. And then you have to find the strength to resist. It can be a physical resistance, just to get to the next leg of one’s trip, moral resistance to overcome depression and adversity or, and here I think of dire periods of History, you may have to refuse something that is imposed on you. Even in a journey, you might face situations and encounters when you have to make a statement about where you stand. I am basically a very self sufficient person, I think I am very open to differences and tolerant of other people’s stand in politics or religion. But for myself, I am only prepared to go so far. This is why there are countries where I don’t think I’ll ever go for leisure, even if they are very tempting on other aspects. And this is very symbolic of the way I view the journey of life. Accept that everybody is unique and entitled to be different, but fix your own basic values and stick to them. And in turn, accept that your own freedom is going to be limited by other’s necessities.

 
Photo: Christine Barrely

Photo: Christine Barrely

 

Meg: There seems to be a theme throughout your answers of trusting yourself—could you offer any observations?

Christine: At some stage in life, preferably not too late, you have to find your own “center,” know what you value most. When this base is definite, it will serve as a motor that you can rely on and then you can trust your instinct. For me it is being truthful to my principles, self sufficient, light on others, respectful of their identity, open to change… But sometimes, following one’s instinct can be challenging. It might mean upsetting your ways, going against the main stream, putting yourself in some kind of danger. This is why you need to find your very own balance beforehand.

 
Photo: Christine Barrely

Photo: Christine Barrely

 

Meg: Both travel and photography have involved for me incredibly serenidipitous experiences.  Is there a specific recollection you have of such a moment in your travels?

Christine: I could not pick just one example, there are so many! It can be the ray of light cast on water just at the instant a boat is sailing by, or it can be a fishing bird landing on its old Chinese master’s wrist with a big fish just when you are shooting him. Some photos I took over the years, I was never able to catch the same emotion again. It was just that, a unique instant. The very same applies to meeting people. Sometimes, you meet somebody and after five minutes it’s like you know this person since childhood, like a museum curator in Vukovar, a photographer in Brittany, a community worker in Harlem, a Native American in Taos and so on…I can’t pinpoint anyone more than the others. They just happened at the right time, for a particular day, in a particular purpose.

 
Photo: Christine Barrely

Photo: Christine Barrely