Somewhere between Mexico, Israel and Japan
An intrepid cultural explorer and vagabond chef.
You may recall our interview with the French-Japanese Sabine and daughter Lea in Shanghai and their tale of rock' n roll expatriation. Maya is Sabine's first-born and a larger-than-life character. A cultural explorer with no fixed-abode, who thrives on authentic encounters, learning languages in the unlikeliest settings and, above all, discovering and learning local cuisines. We were lucky to catch her on her stop-over in Shanghai after a few weeks in Japan, and ahead of a mother & daughter trip to Kerala, in India.
Maya, thank you so much for a few valuable hours with us, amidst your hectic travel plans and short stopover in China. Can you describe a pivotal moment when you realised the world was a big place you wanted to explore?
I was born in Japan where I lived for the first five years of my life, before my Japanese father and French mother decided to relocate to France. We always spoke Japanese at home, but I went to a local school and was taught the French curriculum, so I cannot read or write Japanese. I have been drawing daily for my entire life and embarked into Art & Design studies after high school. Two years into my studies, I had the opportunity to do a short internship in China, which challenged my routine. I then spent some time interning in Italy. When school started again in September, I decided travelling was too important for me and I made my way to Israel, where i ended up staying for 18 months. That's the beginning of my nomadic life!
What role does travel play in your life?
Travel might not be the right term. I actually do little travelling, and certainly do not tick off a bucket list of sites to visit. My only ambition is to spend enough time in one place, to truly connect with local communities, helping me to discover a new way of living and a new outlook. My choice of destination has always been rather serendipitous. My first long foreign experience was Israel. I had met an Israeli guy when rock-climbing in France. Israel seemed as good a place to discover as any, and I quickly packed my bags. I spent the first few months learning Hebrew, I then worked at a traditional kosher restaurant on the beach in Tel Aviv. I would have loved to stay longer, but my visa was coming to an end. Before leaving, I spent two months hiking the ancient pilgrimage trails that cut Israel North to South, with a group of fifty, mostly vegan strangers. This experience rounded off my culinary immersion into Middle Eastern cuisine with a final vegan touch. Leaving was a bitter-sweet experience and has consistently been in all my subsequent trips. In departure are enmeshed the anticipation of future adventures , together with the sadness of leaving loved ones and cherished places behind. A close-to-expiry visa normally spurs me on .... although the arrival of cold weather can also do that, as I learned later in Canada.
Upping sticks from Tel Aviv to Montreal seems another bold move? What influenced your decision?
This was rather accidental again. I went back to France for a few months to figure out where I would go next. It was summer and my former school friends were on summer break, so we took a few weeks to do not one, but two, round-trips all over France. Three of us were hitch-hiking our way through the country, we have tales to tell! What surprised me most was that people who stopped for us had often been hitch-hiking when they were much younger, and were rather nostalgic, It was lovely to trigger these conversations and made for a really rich and entertaining trip. My sister was then moving to Canada to study, so I decided to tag along for a few months. Montreal is where I discovered the Youth Hostel community and it was really magical to meet so many people from so many different countries and cultures, whether they were co-workers or guests. I then rented a room from a Canadian guy of Vietnamese origin who was fascinated with Japanese culture and was renting accommodation to Japanese backpackers. The first arrival of snow meant it was time for me to move further South. By then, I had discovered the rather confidential network of Japanese Youth Hostels which cater to Japanese travellers abroad. That's where I stayed in New York for three months, before deciding to move further South again to Mexico DF. I adored my time in Mexico City, the Mexican culture is both unique and endearing, in a permanent state of happy revolution. At the same time I was discovering Mexican people and customs, I was practising and improving my Japanese by working at the Japanese Youth Hostel. It was a weird parallel experience that brought me back to my native and latent culture.
How does your background play into the world and how you respond to it ?
I always get questions from peers and family 'back home'' as to when I am going to settle. In many ways, I settle, but always in new places and for a finite period of time. So my life can feel like a series of 'settling down'. I am deeply attached and committed to exploring and understanding cultures. I spent some time in indigenous communities in Northern Colombia, I left Mexico DF for a short while to visit a dear Colombian friend I had met in Israel. I ended spending time in the desert of the Guajira peninsula, with the indigenous Wayuu people. I even was 'adopted'' by a local family for a few weeks. It is a matriarchal culture, so I was under the orders of the female head of the family. It was a slightly surreal experience. I moved on, taught myself Spanish in one month, and stayed for free in a local hostel near a kite-surfing beach. I go lodging for free as I was redecorating the common areas by painting frescoes.I was giving shiatsu massages, an art that I learned from my Japanese father, who is a shiatsu teacher.
Travelling is a way to reconnect to yourself and to your routes. When I went back to Mexico DF, I worked at the only Japanese bar in the city, that caters to Japanese salary mean seconded by large Japanese corporations to Mexico. It was my first deep insight into a Japanese culture I do not know, since my main connection to Japan is dad's family and fellow Japanese back-packers, hardly in the mainstream of Japanese society. I learned a lot about Japanese society and economy by chatting with the customers. Most touching of all, because it was a karaoke bar, I got to learn all the classics. I say touching because when I visited my Japanese grand-father in Tokyo a few weeks ago, it was such a bonding experience to be able to belt out karaoke tunes together !
What's up next ?
After our trip to India, I will go back to France for about a year. It is my grandmother's 90th birthday, and I also want to develop a career as a caterer and 'world cuisine' curator, to make people travel through their meals. The plan is then to go and work in Japan for a few years. I may choose to live in more meridional Osaka. A lot of Japanese people who know me well tell me I will like it there, so why not !