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    Foreign Corresponding

    The secret to successful immersion in a new culture, as recounted by six leading journalists who report from Moscow to Beijing

    Since the mid-19th century, foreign correspondents have been the ultimate “deep” travelers: They arrive on assignment and plunge right in to uncover a country’s most essential and often difficult truths. Their adaptability and steadfastness in getting under the seam of a place are essential: If this past year has taught us anything, it is that thoroughly and accurately reported news from around the world matters more than ever. Today’s foreign correspondent bears little resemblance to Hemingway filing dispatches from 1920s Paris. The profession has become both more scrappy and sophisticated — and, thank goodness, more diverse.

    We checked in with six cultural chameleons to hear how they habituate to new environments — some rugged, others byzantine, all foreign. Their tricks? Find a local (warlord, newspaper editor or guide), stash a pack of cigarettes and hand warmers in your carry-on and work on your sprezzatura.

    Steven Lee Myers

    Beijing Bureau Chief, The New York Times

    Steven Lee Myers has worked as a correspondent in Moscow, Baghdad and Washington, D.C., and is the author of The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin.

    Steven Lee Meyers is currently the Beijing Bureau Chief for the New York Times. Photo courtesy of Steven Lee Meyers.

    Where have you felt the most challenged and out of place?

    To be honest, I’ve felt out of place everywhere I have been, even reporting in the U.S. at times. I think this is a plus. The challenge of journalism is to go into any situation or place with an open and curious mind—not a preconception of the place, even an educated one. If I feel like I’m comfortably “in place,” I’m probably not doing it right. The ability to be surprised — being surprised — is what usually leads to the best stories. Churchill famously called Russia “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” and it seemed true when I was in Russia, but over time you peel away some of the mystery. You could say the same about China—a riddle, etc., perhaps even more so, in part because of the tradition of government or imperial secrecy that predates even the People’s Republic.

    Myers was previously the NYT's Moscow Bureau Chief.

    What’s your approach to figuring out a new location?

    The first time I went abroad, the executive editor of The New York Times, Joe Lelyveld, gave me some of the best advice I’ve had as a journalist. He said to not bother reading all the books journalists write about any particular place — in this case, it was Moscow — read the literature. That way you’ll begin to understand the culture that any nation shares. Putin, for example, referred more than once to Gogol’s “Inspector General.” It was also true in Iraq and in China. Food is another great way into a place: It’s at the heart of every culture.

    Nima Elbagir

    Senior International Correspondent, CNN

    The award-winning, Sudanese-born senior international correspondent joined CNN in February 2011 as a Johannesburg-based correspondent before moving to the network’s Nairobi bureau and, later, London.

    Elbagir is a Senior International Correspondent for CNN and is based in London.

    Where have you felt the most challenged and out of place?

    I hate the cold and being slightly claustrophobic; I am not entirely keen on the pitch black. I completely understand that, given the kind of places we work in, this seems utterly ludicrous, but it’s just a fact I’ve had to accept about myself. In the warm light of day, I can quite happily go absolutely anywhere, but as soon as the temperature starts inching southwards, I have to give myself a stern talking-to. Anywhere cold and dark feels like my own personal Reeducation Room 101 from 1984.

    It was one of my first ever reporting trips and I was out in the Darfur desert in Western Sudan, during the beginning of the ethnic cleansing. I was the only woman and journalist to embed with the rebels at that point and was very conscious of that fact. One night, we arrived at a village and the tribal elder had a big diwan (reception room) for putting up guests. We piled into the diwan, and five seconds later all the rebels were snoring. As a woman, I was given my own little corner by the window sill. After wrapping myself in six of the provided blankets, I realized it was so pitch black that I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face and there was zero chance of sleep. I spent what felt like an eternity of purgatory trying to decide whether to crack open the shutters. Finally, I announced I was asthmatic and just did it. It resulted in days of relentless teasing as I clearly wasn’t fooling anyone, but it also broke the ice. Since then, I just happily announce that I’m a weirdo who never learned how to sleep in pitch black and just get on with it.

    Elbagir and her husband climbed Mount Kilimanjaro for their honeymoon.

    Are there certain things that you always pack?

    For late-night live broadcasts in the freezing cold, chemical hand warmers in your pockets are the most extraordinary thing. I get loads of the ones you twist to activate. I first saw someone do it on my honeymoon, when my husband decided climbing Mount Kilimanjaro was what he wanted to do for his part of the trip. Also, if you think you’re going to need something, pack it. I am not a proponent of packing light; it is infinitely worse to spend the whole trip thinking I wish I’d bought that fleece/slippers/dress.

    What’s the most unusual thing you research ahead of time?

    I always check the weather and what that actually “feels like.” New York is a classic example of somewhere that the temperature gauge can say one thing and the wind-chill factor makes it feel like a good few degrees lower. The best way to ruin any trip, whether for work or holiday, is to not have packed the right clothing.

    Nick Bryant

    New York and United Nations Correspondent, BBC

    Before arriving in New York, Bryant was based in Washington, D.C., South Asia and Sydney, and has filed from all over the world. He is the author of The Bystander: John F Kennedy and the Struggle for Black Equality and Confessions from Correspondentland, as well as the upcoming When America Stopped Being Great: A History of the Present (March 2021).

    Nick Bryant is the New York and United Nations Correspondent for the BBC. Photo courtesy of Nick Bryant.

    Where have you felt the most challenged and out of place?

    War and disaster zones are always the most challenging for a foreign correspondent, and my time in Afghanistan in the post-9/11 years, when U.S. forces were fighting the Taliban and trying to hunt down Osama Bin Laden, was both exhilarating and tough. I had spent the previous five years in Washington covering the Clinton and Bush administrations, so it took some time to adjust again from suits to boots reporting.

    On my first trip to Kabul, I always remember checking into the Intercontinental Hotel, a brutalist structure built in the late-1960s that became one of the great foreign correspondent hotels. All the windows in the hotel lobby were boarded up, because the Taliban had fired rocket-launched grenades at the hotel only the week before. Among the visiting correspondents, the attack was a conversational taboo. To speak of it openly — or, even worse, fearfully — was almost like an admission that you didn’t belong.

    Bryant spent time working in Afghanistan in the post-9/11 years.

    What’s your approach to figuring out a new location?

    I always try to immerse myself in the history of a country, and then try to travel as widely and meet as many local people as possible. Ideally, that involves breaking bread, because few things help tear down cultural barriers quite like sharing a meal. In Afghanistan, travel was often difficult, because the only safe-ish way to reach the most hazardous parts of the country was on board a Black Hawk helicopter or to ride in a column of Humvees.

    What’s the most unusual thing you research ahead of time?

    I wish I could say that it involved learning the rules of buzkashi, a horse-mounted game that is a bit like polo but involves scoring a goat’s carcass into a goal. But in those days much of your homework came more under the heading of health and safety: finding out which warlords were in control of which parts of the country, which could sometimes be a matter of life and death.

    Janine di Giovanni

    Journalist and Author

    Janine di Giovanni is a Senior Fellow at the Yale Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. A Guggenheim Fellow, Di Giovanni is currently working on a book called The Vanishing (May 2021). She was previously Middle East Editor at Newsweek and is a frequent contributor to The New York Times, the New York Review of Books, Harpers, Granta and The Guardian.

    Janine di Giovanni is a Senior Fellow at the Yale Jackson Institute for Global Affairs in New Haven. Photo courtesy of Janine di Giovanni.

    Where have you felt the most challenged and out of place?

    I have lived through nearly 18 wars, so I would say the first real war — the siege of Sarajevo — was a learning curve. For instance, there was no water, so how could we wash, brush our teeth or use a bathroom? Showers were out of the question. After living through that, everything else was easy. Wars in Africa were very dangerous and disconcerting: I was always terrified at checkpoints in Liberia and Sierra Leone when child soldiers, high on drugs, manned the gates and pointed AK-47s at my heart. With the safety catch off. Chechnya was very frightening, as Russian aerial bombardment basically leveled Grozny. I did not expect to be inside when the city fell to Russian forces, but I was, and I remember so much blood on the snow, so much misery. But overall, I am grateful for the things I witnessed. I have never taken a hot shower, running water or electricity — not to mention peace and quiet without gunshots ringing out — for granted.

    During the 2002 civil war in the Ivory Coast, I had been reporting war for a decade and I was emotionally and physically worn out. I went to Abidjan to live with my fiancé and try to have a baby: We both were shattered by what we had seen. I was there for six months, loving the “Paris of West Africa” for the freedom from chaos, when war broke out in my garden. Literally. At 2 a.m., I saw tracer rounds in the sky and child soldiers with guns under my beautiful mango trees outside my window. I took my passport, my computer (I had just finished Madness Visible, my book about the war in Bosnia, the night before), a few changes of clothes, and fled. I never saw my beautiful home again. Outside, there was a body in the street and no one knew what was going on. War in films always looks so choreographed. But in reality, it was chaos and no one knew what was going on or where the shots were coming from.

    Janine di Giovanni was reporting in the Ivory Coast during the 2002 civil war.

    What are your tricks for settling in?

    I am a nester. So no matter where I have been — a corner of an old abandoned schoolhouse in bleak northern Afghanistan under the Taliban, for instance — I lay out my sleeping bag, place my flashlight next to it and try to make it as “homey” as possible. I know that sounds insane, but if you are going to live out of a backpack for months on end in a war zone, you have to find ways to keep your sanity. I always bring a good book and a tiny bottle of lavender essential oil, which has therapeutic and medicinal qualities.

    Giulia Paravicini

    Ethiopia and African Union Correspondent, Reuters

    A native of Milan, Paravicini was previously a Brussels-based reporter covering terrorism and security at POLITICO and a member of La Repubblica’s investigation team, based in Rome.

    Giulia Paravicini was previously a Brussels-based reporter at POLITICO was reporting in the Ivory Coast during the 2002 civil war.

    Where have you felt the most challenged and out of place?

    When I worked as a correspondent for Reuters in the Democractic Republic of Congo, I was pregnant, alone, and the country had been ravaged by the worst Ebola epidemic. It was undergoing a regime change and, in theory, the first democratic and inclusive election in its history.

    DRC has very few roads compared to the size of the country, which is as large as Western Europe. Congolese airlines are blacklisted and planes crash very frequently. So if you want to get places, you have to hop on Russian Antonovs or embark on 18-hour drives across the bush. There is a saying in the capital, Kinshasa, which describes how well things work there: “The impossible is possible and the possible is impossible.”

    Paravicini previously worked as a correspondent for Reuters in the Democractic Republic of Congo.

    What’s your approach to figuring out a new location?

    I definitely work with local reporters, photographers and cameramen, and trust their gut. I always try to humanize both myself and the people I am interviewing or interacting with, no matter if they are corrupt local officials, war refugees or a militia leader. If they feel like you are not judging them and are actually interested in what they have to say, it’s remarkable how far that can lead you. Also, I tend to travel with Western cigarettes, especially in areas with a heavy presence of militias or army. Always appreciated.

    Florian Eder

    Senior Editor, POLITICO

    Florian Eder writes the daily Brussels Playbook newsletter for POLITICO. Prior to joining them as a managing editor in 2015, Eder was the EU correspondent for Die Welt, covering EU politics and policies from Brussels, where he arrived at the peak of the Euro crisis in 2011. Eder spent three years in Die Welt’s Berlin newsroom as an editor and previously worked as the Italian correspondent for the Financial Times Deutschland.

    Florian Eder is a senior editor at POLITICO in Brussels. Photo courtesy of Florian Eder.

    Where have you felt most challenged and out of place?

    As a foreign correspondent, you have to look at a place with an outsider’s eye: You won’t discover anything otherwise. On the other hand, you want to learn as much as possible and be part of a new community. It’s very human. Finding that balance wasn’t always easy in the early years of my career.

    Is there a story you can share that captures its particular challenges?

    What Italians call sprezzatura, a certain effortless elegance, is hard to learn — and an absolutely desirable skill in life. I remember my first interview as a young correspondent in Milan. I had lunch with a well-known industrialist at an impressively fancy restaurant. The man didn’t look at the menu, he just ordered: “Grilled prawns and porcini, grazie.” It’s something I’ve always kept in mind.

    Eder worked as a correspondent in Milan, Italy when he was younger.

    What are your tricks for settling in?

    Learn the language first thing, and thoroughly. There’s no fun in the job — and life in a foreign city — without fluency. I like to take the time to walk a lot. There’s hardly a better way to get to know a place and how it works, to check out the different neighborhoods and how different they are from each other, and to get a feeling for where you want to live.

    Gabriel Brotman

    Gabriel Brotman is the Chief Operating Officer of PRIOR. Previously, he spent eight years at POLITICO, the global news organization focused on politics and policy, where he served in various senior roles in strategy, corporate development, product and new ventures. He lives with his partner and two dogs in New York.

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