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Q&A with Melissa Joulwan – co-founder of the ‘Strong Sense of Place’ website and podcast

1st December 2020

We were delighted to catch up recently with Melissa Joulwan, co-founder (with partner David Humphreys) of the Strong Sense of Place website and podcast. For those of you who don’t know, this is a brilliant site that combines ‘books set in location’ with ‘recipes set in location’. A mouthwatering combination!

Melissa and David

Here is our Q&A:

TF: How and when did you and David first have the idea for Strong Sense of Place? What were and are your ambitions for the venture?

MJ: We started working on Strong Sense of Place in earnest in 2018, shortly after we moved from the U.S. to Prague. But I’ve always loved books that make the setting a character itself, all the way back to a Nancy Drew mystery I read when I was a kid. In ‘The Clue in the Crossword Cipher,’ Nancy visits Peru and gets caught up in a caper. There are details about the Nazca Lines and Machu Picchu, and I was enthralled. I’m from a small town in rural Pennsylvania, so Nancy’s adventures seemed exotic and exciting. I wanted that kind of adventure for myself — minus murder, of course. As I got older, I got the same thrill from reading books like Dick Francis mysteries, manor house stories, ‘The Historian’ by Elizabeth Kostova, ‘Travels’ by Michael Crichton. About 10 years ago, David and I made a commitment to each other to travel more. To prepare for our trips, we would skim through travel guides to get the gist of the place, then toss those aside for stories. He would dive into nonfiction set in our destination, and I would lose myself in novels. When we travel, we always spend a few hours in bookstores — English-language and not — browsing and soaking up the local atmosphere. Strong Sense of Place grew out of the desire to share our enthusiasm with other people who like to combine books and travel.

Our goal with the podcast and website is to eventually cover every country in the world. And our biggest ambition has been put on hold for a little while because of the coronavirus pandemic. Our long-term vision is to host in-person events where we can take a deep-dive into a culture through books, music, and food. On the small-scale, we’d love to put on an evening of live storytelling in a cafe or pub. My personal ambition is to host an extended, multi-country tour based on the locations in ‘The Historian’ by Elizabeth Kostova. I think it’s very important to dream big.

TF: In 2017 you upped sticks in the US and moved to Prague. A life changing moment… What led you to do this (always accepting that Prague is a brilliant city in which to live)? 

Castle Prague

MJ: David and I were living in Austin, Texas, and we were feeling unsettled. We had a cute house and lots of friends, but the politics, climate, and general vibe of Texas weren’t a good fit for us. We’d both always daydreamed about living in Europe, but it didn’t seem like a real thing that we could do. Then one day, we just decided that it was. We both have a nerdy affection for long-term planning and processes, so we put together a very robust step-by-step plan for how to get from the center of the U.S. to Central Europe. It took a few years for everything to fall into place — including a detour to Vermont for David’s master’s degree in cartooning — but we made it.

We chose Prague because we’d visited several times and had fallen madly in love with the architecture and magical quality of the city. Plus, Prague is a good hub to visit other places in Europe.

TF: You were a very successful cookbook writer (the Well Fed series) – and cooking and recipes are a major part of Strong Sense of Place’s offering. If you had to choose between your two loves (and I’m not asking you to!), would cooking, or travel and books, come out on top?

MJ: This might be a surprise coming from a cookbook author but this is a very easy choice for me: Travel and books, 100-percent. My dirty little secret is that I actually don’t enjoy cooking all that much. I love to eat, and I enjoy coming up with ideas for menus and recipes. But the everyday need to transform raw ingredients into edible food is a drudgery. I think that’s one of the reasons the Well Fed cookbooks have been a success: They’re full of delicious, international recipes for people who love to eat but don’t necessarily want to spend all their free time in the kitchen. In Erin Morgenstern’s ‘The Starless Sea,’ there’s a magical dumbwaiter that can conjure up whatever food the characters desire. If that could happen for me, it would be the best thing ever.

TF: What (if it’s not an impossible question) are a) your favourite ever book b) your favourite ever location and c) your favourite ever recipe?

MJ: I got David to chime in on these, too, since he has such good taste. He’s notoriously opposed to choosing favorites, mostly because his change day-to-day based on his mood, but books he loves wholeheartedly include ‘A Gentleman in Moscow‘ by Amor Towles (“The Count really resonates with me. I wish I could call him and be, like, ‘Hey, what should I do about this thing?'”), ‘Stoner‘ by John Williams (“Nothing happens and everything happens.”), and Darwin Cooke’s Parker series of graphic novels (“They’re beautifully drawn and pointedly noir.”)

For favorite places, we’re very lucky that one of David’s top picks in the world is Vyšehrad, the park and castle ruins that are a 5-minute walk from our flat. When he was researching places for us to live in Prague, one of the requirements was to be close to this amazing park. Another favorite spot is under the linden tress in Place des Vosges in Paris, and anywhere inside the main branch of the New York Public Library.

His favorite recipe is not from our cookbooks… scandalous! It’s the Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe from Cook’s Illustrated, which we make only once a year, for Christmas.

Crispy plantains

I have no problem whatsoever putting stakes in the ground for favorites. I define a favorite as the book I can open at any page and fall right into the story, no matter how many times I’ve read it before. Ditto for place (teleport there immediately) and recipe (eat it any time). My favorite book is ‘Jane Eyre’ by Charlotte Brontë because it reveals something different every time I read it. (A close second is the Wolf Hall trilogy by Hilary Mantel. Talk about atmosphere!) My favorite place on Earth is next to David, but it’s best when we’re outside somewhere beautiful; the bench next to the San Francisco Bay in Sausalito, California, comes to mind. We lived there when we were in our twenties, and it was spectacular. And the recipe I can happily eat anytime is crispy plantains — although Plantain Nachos are a close second.

TF: David is by training a professional artist and photographer. His sense of design comes through loud and clear in everything you do. How important do you think it is that Strong Sense of Place looks so good? 

MJ: From the beginning, we knew we wanted the Strong Sense of Place website to have a lot of visual appeal. Conceptually, we wanted the content to feel like a well-curated bookshop, staffed by people who love books and know how to describe a book without spoiling the plot. And visually, we wanted the site to embrace the aesthetics of a travel site with photos that make you want to visit that place, even if it’s not crossed your radar before. The color palate for the website and all of our social media is based on a photograph of a historical library — David picked up the colors on the spines of the books and the shelving to create our visual brand. 

TF: Podcasts are a key factor in your recent success. I believe you make 2 series of 12 episodes each a year. This a major undertaking and commitment. Does podcasting come easily to both of you, or is it something you really have to work at? I have to say that you both sound very natural. 

MJ: Our original idea was to launch the website and then ‘someday, maybe we’ll have a podcast.’ But when we committed to the idea of covering every country in the world, the task of creating a comprehensive website all at once because impossible. So we flipped it! Now the podcast is the way we add new destinations to the website: We cover them in the show first and add books, recipes, poetry, bookshops, libraries, music, and more to the website to support the podcast. This was all possible because David has a background in radio and film, and, even though I’m an introvert, I really like to talk, so it’s all just kind of come together.

It’s been a lot of learning and trial-and-error to produce the show. The biggest surprise to me is that it’s a lot of fun. Every other week, I get to sit down and talk about books and travel. What a treat! 

TF: This year has been very challenging for all of us. At TripFiction we have felt totally frustrated by our inability to travel. I imagine it will have been the same for you… How have you coped with lockdown in Prague? 

MJ: Our lives, like so many other peoples’, have shrunken down to what’s essential. We go to Vyšehrad every morning for a walk and some kind of exercise, then we get take-away coffee from our neighborhood café, and spend the rest of the day working, reading, and trying to manage our feelings about living through a pandemic. One of the great gifts has been Strong Sense of Place because we can still daydream about travel, read books set in far-flung destinations, and connect with other people who are also curious about the big world out there.

Research shows that anticipation of traveling increases our happiness level, and that a big part of that anticipation is savoring — immersing ourselves in what that trip could be like. Reading books, watching videos, cooking recipes, looking at photos; all of these activities allow our minds to latch on to concrete details that really are like a mental vacation. So we’ve been hardcore embracing that notion and saving up all of our research for future trips in real life. 

The third member of the ‘Strong Sense of Place’ management team

TF: TripFiction has two cats in the management team. Smudge performs a similar role for Strong Sense of Place. What is it, do you think, that makes feline input so important to a venture’s success? 

MJ: Smudge’s strongest contribution right now, I think, is her ability to carry on with her daily schedule, no matter what else is happening in the world. She has her mission, and she is unfazed by external events. In the morning, she slinks around the breakfast table for a few pets, then retires to her bed in the closet for a rest. At midday, it’s essential that she lie on the leopard-print blanket in the living room. After a small snack, it’s back to the bed in the closet for a nap before her late evening belly rub. Each day-part has its purpose, and she sees it through. This is a commitment to process and self-care that can inspire us all.

A big thank you to Melissa fro answering our questions so comprehensively…

Tony for the TripFiction team

 

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