PORTRAIT - CLEMENTINE & NICOLAS, SHANGHAI, CHINA

Clementine and I were introduced by an acquaintance. It would be easy to mistake Clementine and her partner Nicolas for the usual high achieving, peripatetic expats. Scratch the surface however, and you will discover a couple whose empathy only matches their integrity. They are curious souls with a conscience, whose social commitment dates back to their teenage years. When they decided to take time off to travel, they purposefully eschewed the usual backpacker trail and decided instead to travel -mostly overland- from the Far East all the way back to Paris. The itinerary was as much a commitment to minimise their environmental footprint, as a wish to journey from the extreme cultural alterity of the Far East, slowly back to their European roots. Twelve months crisscrossing New Zealand, Japan, China, South Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia,  Myanmar, Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, India, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Georgia, Turkey, Greece and Italy. A journey where they sucked up culture, food, architecture and beautiful encounters.

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A short Introduction.


Clementine and Nicolas both grew up near Paris. Clementine had a creative streak, but as a grade A student, she found herself studying the more conventional field of business. She employed her time at a prestigious graduate school exploring her creativity through drawing, painting and musicals on the side. She also nourished her budding social activism by spending her summer breaks in various development missions, in an orphanage in the Philippines, or in a disadvantaged school in Brazil's Nordeste.  She used every opportunity to travel and spend half a year in Monterrey, Mexico, for an exchange program, learning Spanish on the fly. Clementine later embarked on a marketing career that took her to Chicago for a while, before her social activism caught back with her and she invested her energy into setting up corporate development missions with her colleagues. Nicolas was looking for an occupation that would feed his natural curiosity and he enrolled into architecture school on a whim. He remembers fondly the intellectual stimulation of joining a gleamingly new architecture school, where the inspiration and energy of passionate lecturers and teachers deeply contrasted with the boredom of high school. Nicolas believes that it is his architecture training which equipped him with the tools to truly see and decode the world he lives in.

Ten years into their careers and shortly after meeting, Clementine and Nicolas decided to jump into the project that they spent many hours day-dreaming about. A year-long overland trip from New Zealand, all the way back to France through Asia, with for only objective to experience the estrangement of the Far East and the gradual reconnection to their European roots.

Settling back into their Parisian life after a year on the road proved impossible and theopportunity of a job transfer allowed them to settle in Shanghai. Four years on, the corporate job is gone, their mandarin is improving and their commitment to the gentle craziness of China is stronger than ever. Clementine has created her own zero waste consultancy and helps local individuals and businesses lower their environmental footprint. China is often tarred with poor environmental records, but it is precisely that challenge that spurred Clementine to make an impact in this fascinating country, where mindsets can evolve at breakneck speed.

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On travel as escapism.

Nicolas grew up with parents that explored every nook and cranny of the French territory, to better bounce off its borders. Curiosity was very much encouraged, but could not transcend an certain apprehension for the foreign. It took quite a lot of bribery for Nicolas to convince them to cross over into Italy for a few hours during a provencal escape. Nicolas simply took over this family atavism and expanded it geographically. School trips and summer camps became the opportunity to graduate from local ski sojourns and beach holidays into language trips to Ireland and Spain, Portugal, Canada, USA… (since the beginning of the architecture studies it became systematic and compulsive to travel and discover countries and cities from all over the World).

Clementine's upbringing was also nourished by travel and curiosity, but structured around yearly, multi-generational foreign excursions. At age 10, she experienced a American East Coast road trip with her extended family. Subsequent years took the family to Morocco and Tunisia, complemented by impromptu car journeys to nearer locales like Prague, Valencia, Barcelona, Bilbao, Sevilla, Florence or Lisboa. The family prepared for long trips all year long, with much research and planning. The language classes, history study and travel journaling involved adults and children alike. Daily school life felt much more constrained and conventional for Clementine, but her traditional girls-only private high school had the benefit of a  Jesuit ethos , which provided many more travel opportunities to Rome, London and Chicago.

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On becoming 'Intelligent tourists".

The phrase was coined by Nicolas's architecture lecturer, who exhorted his students to truly see and experience the world. Nicolas and Clementine each have their specialty. Nicolas understands the world through architecture and buildings - each material, each shape, each decision providing a clue for how the physical environment shaped the local culture in response. Clementine has something of the anthropologist, who deciphers meaning from local rituals and routines, Both are fascinated by food and what feeding tells of our beliefs and relationships.

Clementine and Nicolas have lived and traveled by this guiding principle for many years, but it is their year long trip that became the catalyst for their minimalist and low footprint approach. They favour roads, trains and ferries over flights, to better understand the local topography but also to experience the tribulations of the many, rather than the happy few. They refuse to tick items off a bucket list and rather choose to immerse themselves into local lives, staying in homestays, buying food from local markets, eating out at road stops. This commitment to slow travel feeds a deep hunger to understand and empathise with the lives of others. They carefully jot down their impressions into detailed travel journals and captured their observations into a blog that is refreshingly devoid of the usual travel blogger fare. Go and read it here for yourself. You will discover their night time on a Chinese cargo-passenger ferry and arrival into the industrial Chinese port of Qinhuangdao from Korea, how Kazakh custom officers delayed a whole train to peruse their travel pictures and all passengers joined in, ghost fishing villages now hundreds of kilometers away from the retreating shores of the Aral Sea, or how their arrival into Old Europe in Georgia marked the end of their alterity as they finally blended into the Caucasian population.

Now based in Shanghai, Clementine and Nicolas are slowly exploring every corners of China, away from both the expat and domestic tourist hords. They most recently traveled to the remote province of Qinghai, but also further afield to Japan's Hokkaido and Kyushu. By their own account, they will never travel the same again, and each further journey is an opportunity to live as frugally and locally as possible.

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On China and managing uncertainty.

It is the energy of Shanghai that inspired Clementine to embark on an entrepreneurial journey. After a few months of intensive mandarin classes, she set up her own company structure with a friend, trying to navigate the complex local regulations in the local language. Clementine and Nicolas cannot imagine themselves elsewhere for now and are feeding off the constant reinvention of the city and the country. A saying popular with local expats says that China years are like dog years, they cram in more and feel that much more intense than anywhere else. It is true that change happens in China faster than in the rest of the world. China consumer culture expert Tom Doctoroff states that cultural change, that takes a generation in the West, often happens over a mere five years in China - hence the Chinese customary classification of people by year of birth (The Post-1985, Post 1990s etc).

Day-to-day, China requires the agility to manage uncertainty. Trends change fast, regulations change faster, and no plan survives the reality of China intact, forcing one to practice extreme agility. By Clementine and Nicolas' own account, China has changed them profoundly. They have learned to live in the present and stay alert to opportunities as they arise, becoming comfortable with the impossibility of knowing what happens tomorrow. At the same time, they are feeding off Shanghai's constructive energy - Nicolas highlights just how fast his architectural practice works. He recently re-designed a whole commercial street front in a matter of weeks, finding himself leading a major urbanisation project almost unbeknownst to him ! Clementine and Nicolas have found in Shanghai the opportunity to reinvent themselves, by navigating the Taoist 'slow pace'  philosophy that challenges will sort themselves out, and a post-modern fast and furious pace of the world's largest megalopolis.

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On environmental consciousness.

Clementine and Nicolas have been slow travellers for years, and their commitment always stemmed from having the lightest possible footprint.  Their motivation to travel mostly overground from Japan back to Europe, using trains, ferries and buses,  is rooted as much in a desire to experience local life, as it is a means to limit their carbon footprint. Having witnessed environmental disaster up close at the shrinking Aral Sea. they have further deepened their frugal lifestyle and are making daily considered lifestyle decisions to shop local and only purchase what is necessary.  They recognise that life in China can be challenging, with its profusion of take-away food options, cheap products and lack of recycling facilities. But China cities are also favouring public transport and cycling,  as efficient solutions for mass transportation. In that world of contrast, Clementine acknowledges that the audience of our zero-waste consultancy is still mostly expats, but that a growing number of Chinese millennials are becoming sensitive to environmental action (see this interesting article and this one here.). In true China-fashion, we can expect this trend to gather momentum and Clementine will have played a part in this necessary mindset and behavioural change. 

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A big thank you to Clementine and Nicolas for being so generous with their time and energy.