Salut, and welcome to UrbanTravelGirl, a blog featuring my thoughts on black women living globally through international travel. I’m a passionate believer in the ability of travel to not only transform the way we see the world, but ourselves. As an African-American woman, I’ve developed an even stronger sense of who I am by visiting nearly 35 countries and territories — and by living outside the United States. I spent nearly one year working as a freelance writer in Florence, Italy and most recently lived in the charming French village of Samois-sur-Seine, a 40-minute train ride south of Paris. I don’t believe in letting other folks define ME — and you shouldn’t, either!
I hope to spark conversation among African-American women who love (or WANT) to travel abroad, who are never happier than when we’re in new and challenging foreign environments. I want to hear your comments about my trips – and I want to hear about yours. Wondering whether it’s cool to travel solo to Paris, or how you’d be received as a black woman in Rome? Put it out here and we UrbanTravelGirls will jump in and give you the scoop. Looking for some fab, locals-only restaurants and boutiques in Florence, Barcelona or Buenos Aires? I’ll dish about it and hope other chicas visiting here will also share.
So what are you waiting for? Get out there, hit the road, discover your own global bliss — and let’s chat about it!
December 28, 2012
While on the French Riviera for the Nice Jazz Festival, my pianist dad and I took in Le Negresco Hotel’s Le Relais Bar, where Farnell has been invited to perform.
One thing I’ve found is that the older I get, the more I appreciate the power of hindsight and reflection. Time often needs to march on before you can truly appreciate where you’ve been, what you’ve done—and how past experiences influence your life in the present. I returned to the United States nearly nine months ago (can’t believe it’s been that long!), but am still processing how the year I spent living in France will not only alter my life’s trajectory, but those of other folks, as well.
I may have only been in charming Samois-sur-Seine for 12 months, but I often joke time spent living abroad is like “dog years.” Every experience feels amplified; time seems to expand—and you’re truly present in every moment. And you have to be, as you think in one language, but must translate into another tongue and culture all day. This summer, I got to do it all again during a trip back to Samois and south to the French Riviera—but this time, with my dad Farnell.
Because I’m a professional writer, I process my thoughts through words. And an editor friend at the Chicago Defender gave me the chance to process this trip with my dad in a Travel column for this legendary African-American newspaper. As I wrote, international travel is potentially life-changing if you open your mind to the possibilities it sometimes brings. And that’s just what’s happened for my dad Farnell, a songwriter, pianist and lifelong Chicagoan who got his musical groove back thanks to a couple of recent trips to France.
Lest you think Mr. Jenkins is one of those beret-wearing musicians who regularly pulled out his passport over the years and headed overseas, think again. Every time my mom, sister and brother-in-law would urge him to join us on some vacation in Paris, London or Rome, he always said no. Perhaps he wanted to enjoy the solitude of home; maybe, as he used to say, he just didn’t like the idea of flying 30,000 feet over an ocean for hours at a time. (As a young singer and songwriter with a singing quartet called the Teachers’ Edition, he traveled on two tours of Asia with the USO—and perhaps that was enough.) But in late 2010, he finally said yes to a trip with me.
You UrbanTravelGirl readers know I love to travel solo, and planned to celebrate New Year’s and my birthday in Costa Rica. I invited Farnell to come along, and to everyone’s surprise, he agreed. We had a blast—so much so that when I asked him a few months later to go with me to Panama City, Panama, to check it out as a possible place to live, he didn’t bat an eye. Friends and family were as psyched as I was, knowing how I tried for years to talk him into these overseas trips.
Since then, I like to think Farnell and I have become good globe-trotting buddies. As a freelance Travel and Food writer for several years, I’m far more comfortable on the road than I ever am at home. But actually leaving the country with your dad puts your father-daughter relationship on a whole different plane—literally. Once you’re on foreign soil, you leave behind all things familiar. You’re struggling to speak a foreign language, spending cash that looks like play money, walking a fine line along a culture you may not understand.
Sharing overseas experiences—the harrowing bus ride on a Costa Rican mountainside, sampling fresh ceviche in a Panama City fish market, sitting on a dock beside the Mediterranean Sea—with my dad has been a huge blessing. It’s allowed us to build a whole host of memories of our own—and a litany of crazy tales you’d have to be there to believe.
Making the most of opportunity
So during my time in Samois, I invited my parents to visit and was thrilled when my dad agreed to come. But I needed to find lodging for my then-smoking dad, as tobacco wasn’t allowed in the house where I lived. I booked my dad a room on La Bonne Amie, a gorgeous four-room, luxury bed & breakfast boat moored just across the street from me on the Seine River. Fortunately, the boat’s New Zealand-born owner Steve was also a smoker. And a talker. He and Farnell hit it off—and Steve later invited him back to the boat for a week of piano performances this summer.
Playing in front of people is first nature for Farnell, a “preacher’s kid” and gospel musician who’s shared his immense talent at Chicago-area churches most of his life. (The late gospel singing legend Mahalia Jackson was a long-time member of his father’s congregation, and a teen-aged Farnell had the honor of accompanying her on the organ during a church revival.) He’s also no stranger to the secular scene, as he and the four college friends who made up the Teachers’ Edition (they were all public school educators) not only toured Asia but also recorded on Memphis-based Hi Records with legendary producer Willie Mitchell, who helped shape Al Green’s trademark sound.
During this time, Farnell wrote tunes that became part of the Teachers’ Edition’s onstage repertoire and recordings—including “I Wanna Be Loved,” an early ‘70s melodic slow jam that British rock singer Elvis Costello covered in 1984. The tune later appeared on “The Very Best of Elvis Costello” in 1999, introducing this Hi Records classic to a whole new generation of worldwide fans.
Before returning to Samois for this summer’s performances, Farnell needed to hone his musical repertoire. Enter Cyrano’s Farm Kitchen, an authentic French bistro in downtown Chicago with a charming downstairs cabaret. I’ve known the affable French chef/owner, Didier Durand, through my freelance Food writing and introduced him to my dad. Farnell became the Barrel Room cabaret’s regular Thursday night performer this spring and summer, adding his own soulful twist to jazz, blues, R&B, and pop standards. He packed them up, took them to France, and during a trip south to the French Riviera, landed another invitation—this time to play the elegant lounge at the legendary five-star Le Negresco Hotel in Nice.
And Farnell jumpstarted it all by agreeing to hang out with me in a French village.
My dad Farnell and I got to meet legendary Earth, Wind & Fire singer Philip Bailey following the band’s performance at the Nice Jazz Festival this summer.
If I were a believer in fate or chance, I’d attribute this whole thing to one of those. But I’m convinced this all happened in divine order, giving Farnell an entrée back into the music world decades after he first jumped in. At the annual Festival Django Reinhardt jazz event in Samois, he met a helpful publicist with music publishing ties. And since I was covering the Nice Jazz Festival as a freelance writer, Farnell and a Chicago musician friend facilitated an interview between me and legendary Earth, Wind & Fire bassist Verdine White—someone Farnell first met 40 years ago.
The moral of this travel tale: just picking up that passport can launch you into a new adventure. In Farnell’s case, saying oui to these overseas trips has given us a chance to spend priceless time together while he pursues his musical dreams both here in Chicago and on the other side of the world.
Yet another reason why international travel literally rocks.
October 9, 2013
Here I am, standing underneath the Eiffel Tower — in my favorite city in the world — in November.
When cleaning out a dresser drawer this week, I ran across my permesso di soggiorno per stranieri, or the Italian “Foreigners’ Permit of Stay” that became a prized possession during my time in Florence nearly 10 years ago. It allowed me to legally live in Italy and to work as a libero professionista, a freelance professional. Just seeing this folded piece of blue-tinted paper—to which a passport-sized photo of me is loosely stapled—took me back to those days in 2004 and 2005 when I temporarily called Firenze home. Looking at my smiling, youthful face, surrounded by freshly done two-strand twists, I remember how idealistic and fearless I was when launching my first living-abroad adventure as a freelance writer.
In many ways, I felt the same way when leaving Chicago last January for my year-long stay in the charming French village of Samois-sur-Seine. It wasn’t a well-known Renaissance city like Florence, but it has its own renown and as a welcoming place for artists and writers over the centuries. When I left for Samois with a French visa glued into my nearly full American passport, I also was excited, hopeful—and dare I say, wonderfully optimistic about this new chapter overseas.
With a scenic village as a backdrop—and a central location in the middle of Europe—I planned to write freelance Travel and Food articles for a wide range of publications. I wanted to travel to nearby European countries and to explore France. Since Samois was about an hour south of Paris, I vowed to take the 40-minute SNCF commuter train into the City of Light at least once a week. I hoped to finally become a fluent speaker of French. And I wanted to start writing a book on African-American women and our love affair with France. Nothing like having a list of goals as long as your arm, right?
But alas … I decided it was time to close this year-long chapter of “cultural immersion,” or what I came to think of as my “mid-life sabbatical” in France. Some weeks ago, I moved back to Chicago, realizing it made more financial sense to return and resume my freelance writing and communications consulting career here. Since coming back, I’ve been working nonstop, settling back into my condo in downtown Chicago, and readjusting to an American life that after a year away sometimes feels a bit foreign. Although there are many things I miss about France—crusty baguettes, safe streets and charming accents are near the top of the list—I’m surprisingly happy to be home.
Still, I managed to do much of what I hoped during my year in France. I got lots of great writing assignments, expanding into publications like CNN.com, About.com Luxury Travel, and Ebony. I traveled some, mostly to the south of France and across the border to Italy for media trips. I got myself to Paris as often as I could, as it’s still my absolute favorite place in the world. Every time I’d get off the train at Gare de Lyon and stroll out into those city streets, I instantly felt lighter and more at home than I often feel in my native Chicago.
Sadly, I’m nowhere near fluent in French. I’d hoped that living in an authentic village would have me conjugating verbs in the subjunctive in no time, but when you report and write in English all day, it’s hard to develop the fluency that comes from truly LIVING a foreign language day in and out. But I haven’t given up. I’m going to enroll in classes here in Chicago to keep myself engaged with le français. And I definitely plan to still write that book about black women and France. I got a start on the project while I was overseas, but there’s much more to be researched and great stories to be told. I’ll need to do it during occasional trips abroad, but I’m determined to get it done.
What I DO know is that my year in France will continue to shape my perspective—and my outlook on life—in ways I can’t yet imagine. I’ll write about some of my initial impressions in my next post, and about others as they hit me later on.
Charming restaurants, like the La Patte d’Oie gem in the small town of Mennecy, are among things I miss about France. But fortunately, the country — and the wonderful folks I met over the past year — are just an airplane flight away.
One thing I’ve realized is that my adventure wasn’t mine alone—or really even about me. I’ve been touched and amazed to find that family, friends and my UrbanTravelGirl readers felt as invested in my time abroad as I was. I’m psyched that I inspired many of you to pack your bags, grab your passports, and head out on those first overseas trips. Others have told me that like me, you long to live abroad and are preparing for the day that you make that move. I can’t wait until I can return the favor and become your cheerleader, encouraging you to do it and to just go. We only live once—and we owe it to ourselves to experience as much of this incredible world as we can.
But this is hardly the end of my traveling and wanderlust. Even though I’m back in Chicago, being a traveler is who I am, an intrinsic part of my being. I’m making a trip back to France with my pianist dad Farnell Jenkins this summer as he pursues his own overseas adventure—and I’m thrilled beyond words to know my time there helped inspire it.
And that’s the reality of life. Our international journeys are often circular; they don’t always lead us in a straight line. Some of us discover them early in life, others later. But the point is to get there and to take advantage of all the great stuff we find once it presents itself.
Personally, I can’t wait to see where my own journey leads from here. But you’d better know that wherever it goes, I’ll have my passport firmly in hand. As European travel legend Rick Steves always says at the end his public television shows, “Until next time … keep on traveling.”
Amen to that!
March 12, 2013
Where has the time flown, my UrbanTravelGirl friends? Merci beaucoup to those of you who missed hearing from me, wondered where I’ve been, and dropped me e-mails asking. I can’t believe that Christmas and New Year’s are nearly here, as it seems like just yesterday that I was excitedly preparing for my France adventure and move overseas. But I’ve been here nearly 12 months now, and it’s definitely been a life-changing learning experience.
My posts have been far more sporadic than I’d planned as I’ve spent so much time working like mad—and when you’re a freelance journalist and consultant like me, you need to “make hay while the sun shines,” as the saying goes. In the New Year, I hope to have more time for reflection about my African-American female expat life in France—and will happily share it with you once I do. In the meantime, seeing as the holidays are knocking on the door, I want to share a fascinating new Blue Lion Films DVD that’s parfait for the Francophile on your last-minute shopping list. (But really, who needs an excuse to think about France? Anytime’s a good time.)
“When African Americans Came to Paris” is a labor of love from Walking the Spirit Tours CEO and Founder Julia Browne—an incredible sister who describes herself as “British-born, Canadian-raised, and French by affinity”—award-winning documentarian Joanne Burke, and her writer/cameraman husband David Burke. This DVD features six short videos, each one between just four and seven minutes long. And each offers a fascinating historical take on black folks in the 20th century and the Paris that offered them an embrace long denied by their American homeland. Burke researched the content, tracked down the archival images, and narrates each segment, while Browne served as a consultant, promoter and distributor for the project.
Walking the Spirit Tours CEO and Founder Julia Browne holds a photo of black American author Chester Himes, one of the legends mentioned during her tours. (Daniel Morris photo)
Jazzed up with period music, black-and-white still and video images and smart, thoughtful commentary by scholars, artists and other present-day contributors, each segment is a stand-alone glimpse at why France, and specifically Paris, occupies such a mythological place in the minds of black folks. As contributor and Bates College professor Marcus Bruce states in the introductory video: “When African-Americans come to Paris, they discover the terms by which they want to define themselves.” It was true centuries ago, and newly arrived emigrants like me still feel the same.
“When African Americans Came to Paris” includes:
- W.E.B. DuBois and the 1900 Paris Exposition;
- Henry Ossawa Tanner: An Artist in Exile;
- The Harlem Hellfighters;
- James Reese Europe: Warrior and Musician;
- Jazz Comes to Paris;
- Three Women Artists in Paris.
The DVD’s videos vividly bring to life what Browne offers through her company’s walking-and-bus tours of current-day Paris, from strolls past artist Henry Ossawa Tanner’s first apartments near the Louvre to trips through the still-vibrant Montmartre quartier where black American entertainers and entrepreneurs like Ada “Bricktop” Smith and Eugene Bullard (also the world’s first black combat pilot) left their indelible musical imprints in the 1920s. Keeping the spirit of the videos alive on both sides of the Atlantic, the Burkes and Browne will take to the road, sharing “When African Americans Came to Paris” at conferences and special screenings in Paris and in the United States.
- Walking the Spirit Tours’ Julia Browne leads a group through Paris’ Latin Quarter. Her company’s year-round tours expose visitors to 200 years of black American history in the City of Light. (Daniel Morris photo)
So whether you’re planning a trip to Paris, longing to relive previous jaunts to the City of Light—or want to travel to France by way of these incredible vignettes—pick up this DVD. It’s available in both U.S. and European formats for schools, corporations and government agencies. And what I especially love is that Blue Lion offers a comprehensive Teacher’s Guide for students in grades six through 12. Nothing like encouraging a love of international travel and African-American history at the same time.
December 22, 2012
Here I am this summer, taking a ferry like the locals do in the gorgeous and underrated northern Italian region of Brescia.
As an American journalist who makes a living (such as it is) as a freelance Travel, Food and Lifestyles reporter based in France, I love sharing my words with as many readers as I can. And when a major U.S. radio station—one with a 50,000-watt signal that not only reaches 38 U.S. states and Canada but also is streamed live worldwide—recently asked me to talk about one of my articles on the air, I was both flattered and thrilled.
Last week, CNN.com published my Travel feature on “7 Ways to Go Local When Traveling,” and soon after I got a call from a producer at WGN Radio, the perpetual No. 1 station in my Chicago home town. I was invited to chat with the station’s overnight host, Bill Leff, about how to live as the Romans do (and the Londoners and Parisians and Athenians) when on vacation—and about my expat adventures over here in France.
What was supposed to be a 20-minute interview turned into an hour-long chat about everything from renting a “holiday flat” to taxi-driver restaurant advice to the audacity of a Baptist church in Rome. And what fun it was, thanks to Bill—an engaging and quick-witted actor, writer and comedian who kept me on my toes. Besides, I’ve been seriously homesick the past several weeks, missing my family, my “dog sister,” my downtown Chicago church, White Castle burgers and Pepe’s Tacos. It was great, even for a short while, to be connected to Chi-town thanks to reliable, over-the-pond technology.
We reporters generally hate being interviewed (control freaks, WE like to be the ones posing the questions, thank you very much), but Bill’s thoughtful approach made me forget that rather than merely having a dialogue, he and I were actually speaking to thousands of listeners. Very humbling, indeed.
So here’s my shameless self-promotion pitch—when you’ve got a few spare minutes (or heck, nearly an hour), check out my WGN Radio interview. See if you pick up a travel tip or two about experiencing the world on its own terms, no matter where in the world you happen to go.
October 8, 2012
Bonjour et bonsoir, mes amis!! I know it’s been awhile since I’ve shared my French adventures, but all is well on this side of the Atlantic. I promise to update you shortly on my thoughts about spending my first full summer in France—and my ongoing adjustments to expat life.
But in the meantime, UrbanTravelGirl is sharing this space with author and playwright Melda Beaty, a super-talented, Chicago-based sister (AND one of my proud Delta Sigma Theta sorority sisters!) whose debut novel, LIME, takes us on a trip around the world through the pages of a book (and an eBook for you Kindle carriers). My fellow word-lovers know what a delicious adventure that can be … so enjoy this guest post from Melda and check out LIME for yourself!
Melda Beaty, author of the newly released novel, LIME
For 40 years, my life revolved around a few states in the United States. My origins began in Mississippi but quickly transplanted me to Chicago, Illinois, when I was a few weeks old. Growing up, I went on family vacations in different U.S. states, but traveled more during my college and adult years. However, it wasn’t until my 40th birthday that I got to take a trip that most only dream about. Me, a little black girl from the West Side of Chicago, boarded a plane headed to London and while there boarded another plane to Amsterdam. Despite the cool and gray 60-degree temperatures in the month of August, I thanked God every morning for allowing me to experience life 3,900 miles away from my comfort zone.
I’m not sure what gave birth to my fascination with other cultures. I’ve been a Travel Channel junkie for as long as I can remember. While others watch “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern” and Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” for the food, I fixate on the culture that produces the food. I am drawn to the language, customs, beliefs … the overall way of life of people living happily overseas.
LIME takes readers on an often-glamorous tour around the world.
This “draw” found its way into my brand-new novel, LIME (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, $14.95). The heroine, Lime Prince, is the best mixture of different cultures and places that my imagination could conceive. Her Ethiopian/Jamaican genes accented with lime-green eyes afford her a life as an international supermodel. Like mine, Lime’s beginnings were in Chicago, Illinois. When her Ethiopian mother takes her back to Brixton—the wonderfully vibrant and heavily African-Caribbean neighborhood in London—where the Amde family resides, Lime gets to experience this world-class city with its double-decker buses, Buckingham Palace, old CoolTan building, St. Matthew Westminster, and more. From there, she finds herself in Johannesburg, South Africa or E’goli (a “place of gold,” as the city is called by the locals) with its cornucopia of black faces, diverse languages, wildlife, and vitality.
With runway shows and fashion photo shoots in Paris, Milan, and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, LIME takes you, the reader, along for these around-the-world adventures. However, in the midst of her fairy-tale life, she is forced to confront the realities of violence against women. This juxtaposition of beauty and violence, and glamour with pain eventually takes Lime to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Like Lime, I’m not done seeing the world. If you follow her, I promise you will see it, too, if only in a novel … for now.
Melda Beaty is an author, playwright, English lecturer, and educational consultant. She currently teaches English at South University. You can read more about LIME at MeldaCreates.com, Amazon.com, and now on Kindle.
August 27, 2012
I know I’ve waxed poetic here about the “honeymoon phase” of my move to France and appreciating the “small stuff” about my new life in the charming village of Samois-sur-Seine and within France itself. But you UrbanTravelGirls knew THAT wasn’t going to last. Reality eventually intrudes, and all those cute-and-charming quirks about French life—you know, the midday break most businesses take, the fact that nobody but you seems to be in a hurried rush—start to get on your ever-lovin’ nerves. And I’ve encountered quite a few of those quirks over the past week, frustrating me and making me wonder WHAT in the world I was thinking to trade in a relatively easy and uneventful life back in downtown Chicago for the unpredictability of one as freelance consultant and writer overseas ….
Continue June 28, 2012
Among the many things I love about France—and living about an hour south of fabulous Paris—is that so many folks from home come through the city. I’ve already had a chance to spend quality time in the City of Light with some true-blue American friends who’ve visited here (Salut, Carol, Katherine, Kelly, Mary, Paula, Betty and Mike!).
What’s ALSO great about being so close to Paris is having the chance to meet wonderful new friends and colleagues who either are friends-of-current friends or traveling through town on their own adventures. That’s why I was SO psyched when the fabulous Fleacé Weaver, founder of Los Angeles-based BlackGirlTravel.com invited me to spend an afternoon with her and a dozen women as part of the group’s “April in Paris” tour. These African-American sisters spent two weeks living la belle vie in the heart of Paris, with Fleacé—who personally organizes and leads tours for sisters around the globe—as their fearless leader. I’d first met her virtually two years ago when interviewing her over the phone for a JET Magazine and JETmag.com feature on “African-Americans Going Global.”
Among the specially created Parisian activities was a makeover session at black|Up Cosmetics, which bills itself as the “#1 ethnic makeup brand” in France. A central Paris showroom filled with all the skin care, color cosmetics and assorted extras a fashionista of color could want, black|Up hooked BlackGirlTravel UP on this May afternoon. Fleacé asked me to chronicle not just the makeovers, but how international travel—and this trip to Paris—was transforming these professional women’s lives ….
Continue June 11, 2012
So it’s been 4½ months since I first arrived in France, and in many ways, the time has crept by like “dog years.” That’s not a bad thing—rather, it’s pretty much what I expected by exchanging my comfortable, big-American-city life for a slower and much different one in a French village. On days when I’m at home writing an article or blog post, I could be anywhere; on days when I or take the 40-minute train into fabulous Paris, I’m in my favorite city in the world. I sometimes have to pinch myself when I round a corner and the Eiffel Tower pops into view, when I’m breaking off a fresh piece of a crispy crusted baguette after a stop at a boulangerie, or when I look out my front window and remember that the river flowing outside is the same Seine that snakes through Paris. WOW.
This is what I call the “Under the Tuscan Sun” or “Before Sunset” part of my French experience, when my days contain happenings—or involve real-life French folks—that seem right out of a Hollywood script.
But although there’s much that’s fabulous about living in France, it’s not like every day is a holiday or that I’m constantly planning a last-minute vacation to some fabulous place (my Travel writing work notwithstanding). It’s REAL LIFE, with all the pressures, challenges, errands and occasional hassles that go along with it ….
Continue April 19, 2012
When you move abroad from the United States—and even when you move to a progressive, equally developed country—the adjustments you need to make in daily life are huge. That’s not to say that they’re BAD; they’re not. They’re just different. You might not find the same cough drop brands at the local pharmacist; out in the villages, you’re not likely to find a walk-ins-are-welcome manicurist seven days a week. But obviously, you’ve decided small changes like these are worth making in order to live the life you have now.
As I go about my daily routine, I’m finding that many of the experiences I have here in the lovely village of Samois-sur-Seine, in the surrounding towns, and 40 minutes away in Paris are nearly identical to ones I faced in Florence, Italy, when I lived there back in 2004 and 2005. Thank goodness this time around, I feel much more prepared to tackle the inevitable challenges that crop up on a daily basis. As anyone living abroad can attest, it’s during your first experience that you learn to juggle the truly unfamiliar until it becomes comfortable ….
Continue February 29, 2012