Benvenuto! Bienvenue! Welcome!


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 in 2012 lived in the charming French village of Samois-sur-Seine, an hour 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 boutiquesin 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!

122 Comments August 11, 2014

Behind the words: a glimpse into a Travel journalist’s writing process

Here I am on one of the main streets in the legendary city of Granada in southern Spain, where I traveled last month with a group of fellow freelance Travel writers.

As you can see by the date of my last entry, it’s been a challenge to regularly write and post lately. With a full-time job and my freelance Travel writing, there always seems to be some deadline or priority competing for my time and attention. But I’m determined to get back to my regular conversations with you, which I’ve certainly missed. International travel is my true love—and sharing this passion with UrbanTravelGirl readers for the past five years (!) has been an honor and a joy. While I love sharing insights I’ve discovered through my travels, hearing about your global adventures keeps me encouraged and inspired. So I’m back, and looking forward to reconnecting!

Even though I often feel as if I’m moving 100 miles an hour, I was flattered when my friend and fellow freelance journalist Rosalind Cummings-Yeates invited me to take part in a “Blog Hop” that introduces bloggers from around the world to each other as they talk about their own writing processes—and how they uniquely share their perspectives. (Read about Rosalind and how she brings her words to life in this post.)

Going through this exercise and consciously thinking through what makes me tick—and how I move from concepts and ideas to a notebook or laptop to published articles and blog posts—has been a treat in itself. And I’m thrilled to introduce you UrbanTravelGirls to three other writers and bloggers I greatly respect—and who you’ll love getting to know. Please read on ….

What am I working on/writing now?

I recently visited the enchanting Spanish city of Granada, as well as its surrounding province, on a press trip for Travel journalists from the Midwestern United States. While in España last month, I also traveled to the capital city of Madrid and the much smaller but historically important northern city of León. I’m currently writing a series of posts for my Today’s Chicago Woman Magazine Travel blog and full-length articles based on that nine-day trip, from the incredible new Business Plus in-flight service offered by Iberia to the awesome cuisine offered at León’s Michelin-star Cocinandos to high-end experiences for About.com Luxury Travel.

Although I have a full-time “day job,” being able to still stay engaged as a freelance Travel writer gives me a way to maintain my creative muscle and endless sense of wanderlust. Obviously, I don’t have the time or flexibility to travel as often (or as far) as I’d like, so I’m delving more into scenes and stories closer to my home base of Chicago. Sometimes we’re so focused on exotic and far-away locations we miss rich adventures right in front of us!

How does my work/writing differ from others of its genre?

Because I studied journalism as an undergraduate at Northwestern University’s renowned Medill School and have had the pleasure of covering everything from fashion and beauty to popular culture and music as a newspaper and online reporter, I bring a range of insights to the Travel writing I do. I’ve done Corporate Communications for large multinational companies like Boeing, and have been fortunate to see much of the world while on work assignments in countries as diverse as Iceland and Saudi Arabia. I also earned a master’s degree in Theological Studies at a United Methodist seminary on Northwestern’s campus, where many of my courses explored cross-cultural ministry and world religions. Delving deeply into the fundamental ways people of all races, ethnicities and cultures experience the spiritual and divine has given me invaluable insight into what makes us wonderfully different, yet on some levels very much alike.

My writing is (literally) richly colored by my perspective as an African-American woman who grew up in the American Midwest, but who’s traveled to nearly 35 countries and territories on four continents and lived abroad in Florence, Italy, and in a charming village outside Paris. So whether I’m waxing poetic about the rustic Italian cuisine at a restaurant on Chicago’s North Side, offering tips on renting apartments when traveling abroad, or encouraging folks to check out houses of worship when they’re on the road, I infuse this sensibility into everything I write. And in fact, my personal background often inspires the topics I choose to explore in the first place. That’s the importance of bringing your “full self” to the table, regardless of your career.

Why do I write what I do?

Paradoxically, I’m never more comfortable than when I’ve chosen to be an “outsider”—and I’ve made the challenging decisions to live as an expatriate and an immigrant in two European countries. At heart, I’m all about exhorting and evangelizing about the life-changing aspect of travel, whether you do it in your own backyard or on the other side of the globe. I believe it broadens your worldview, makes you more tolerant and accepting of other folks’ perspectives and viewpoints—and gives you greater appreciation for your own.

That’s why I encourage my readers to occasionally take the road less traveled. To “do one thing every day that scares you,” as former American First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt is often quoted as saying. I’m adaptable and comfortable with ambiguity, and try to go with the flow as circumstances change and evolve. While moving to the other side of the world isn’t possible, practical or even desirable for most people, sampling the unfamiliar—whether it’s a cuisine you’ve never tried or checking out an ethnically different neighborhood in your own town—often leads to a much richer experience than you ever imagined.

How does my writing process work?

After more than two decades as a journalist, I believe that everything I write—whether for UrbanTravelGirl or my Today’s Chicago Woman Travel blog—needs to be professional-quality before I put my name on it. (Yes, my perfectionist Capricorn tendencies are as strong as ever!) I’m TOTALLY old-school about taking notes, scribbling furiously and illegibly (at least to others’ eyes) in narrow reporter’s notebooks when doing interviews or on the road. Once I’m back at my laptop, I need utter silence to write. No TV, no background music. While it drives me nuts, I’m a procrastinating writer—but I feel I do my best work with deadline pressure staring me in the face. Tortured or not, I absolutely love the work.

Whether I’m on staff as a reporter, freelancing Travel stories for publications such as CNN.com, or working full-time in Corporate Communications, I always define myself first and foremost as a WRITER and a storyteller. You know when people ask whether you’d keep working even if you won the lottery? THIS is the work I’d do for free, even if I didn’t get paid (and very often, I don’t!). Words help me make sense of the world—and hopefully, those I write help others do the same.

Here, please meet my fellow “Blog Hop” writers!

Rosalind Cummings-Yeates

Rosalind Cummings-Yeates is a freelance journalist, blogger and arts critic specializing in travel and lifestyle topics. She’s the author of Exploring Chicago Blues: Inside The Scene, Past and Present (History Press),  a guidebook to Chicago blues history and landmarks. Her other credits include Woman’s Day, Hemispheres, MSN, Salon, Brides, Yoga Journal, Travel + Escape, Go Magazine, Relish, Time Out Chicago, Mojo, Allmusic.com, Get Lost, Rough Guide to Women Travel, and the Chicago Sun-Times, among other publications. She writes a monthly blues column for the Illinois Entertainer, travel blogs for various publications and teaches journalism at Columbia College Chicago. She’s based in Chicago, from which she manages to escape during the Windy City’s six official winter months. You can read more of her work on her website and on her travel and culture blog, Farsighted Fly Girl.

Kelly E. Carter

Kelly E. Carter is a New York Times-bestselling author and founder of TheJetSetPets.com, the luxury travel source for pampered pets on the go. Her latest book, The Dog Lover’s Guide to Travel, was released in spring 2014 and marks National Geographic’s first dog travel guide book. Carter and her posh pooch Lucy, a longhair Chihuahua, have globetrotted together for 13 years, including a two-year stint in Italy. A popular speaker at travel conferences, Carter is also the pet travel expert for AOL’s pet site PawNation and Elite Traveler, where she’s a Contributing Editor. She has written for numerous publications and websites, including on staff for People and USA Today and as a freelancer for Departures, Men’s Fitness, Black Enterprise, Los Angeles Times, History Channel MagazineSouth China Morning Post in Hong Kong, TownandCountryTravelMag.com and CigarAficionado.com. With Venus Williams, Carter co-authored the New York Times best-selling book Come to Win: Business Leaders, Artists, Doctors and Other Visionaries on How Sports Can Help You Top Your Profession

Terra Robinson

Terra Robinson is an American Black Chick in Europe. She chronicles her time living, working and travelling in Europe through the filters of being an American, a woman and black. One part travel, one part expat and one part personal blog, American Black Chick in Europe serves up tidbits and information about life in Europe straight up with no chasers. Having lived in Europe since 2008, with stints in England, France, Belgium, and currently Denmark, this American Black Chick in Europe seeks to demystify what she affectionately refers to as these crazy Europeans.

Kate Silver

Kate Silver has been writing professionally for 15 years, seven of which have been full-time freelance. She got her start writing news and features as a staff writer in Las Vegas in 1999.  Along the way, she’s stalked celebrities for People Magazine, co-authored guidebooks on Las Vegas, and investigated off-the-beaten path stories (like one about the so-called “Wedding Chapel Wars”) for national outlets. In 2007, she quit her job as associate editor with Las Vegas Life magazine and took the freelance plunge, eventually moving to Chicago to live closer to family. Today, she juggles a healthy mix of editorial and corporate work, specializing in travel, food, wellness and feature stories. Her work appears in Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times and Crain’s, and she also writes and blogs for a number of businesses and non-profits, including Chevrolet, General Motors, American Heart Association, Behr Paint and others. Silver also works on a number of ghostwriting projects, large and small, and is wrapping up her second ghostwritten book. In addition, she recently completed the 2015 Frommer’s Easy Guide to Chicago, to be published in the fall. She is a member of Association of Women Journalists (AWJ) and the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA), and serves on the planning committee for ASJA’s Content Connections, an annual writer’s conference that will be held in Chicago Nov. 13-14. Silver also blogs and maintains a website.

2 Comments June 26, 2014

Nothing like convening with fellow travelers to give your wanderlust a boost

Final-Women-in-Travel-Summit-small-copy1Being a freelance Travel writer who’s rarely on the road is like being a swimmer with limited access to a pool. A professional chef without a kitchen. A keyboardist who’s unable to get her hands on a piano or organ. You get the idea. And since I’m no longer living in Europe—or working as a full-time freelance journalist—I miss out on the pure adrenaline rush that comes from leaving home for some other destination. Thankfully, I get short-term fixes thanks to CNN’s Emmy Award-winning “Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown,” the fantasy-inducing “House Hunters International” … and occasional Travel reporting getaways, such as last weekend’s amazing trip with my dad to 5-star The American Club and Kohler Waters Spa in nearby Kohler, Wisconsin.

And that’s why I’m especially psyched to be headed this morning to the Women In Travel Summit in downtown Chicago. The brainchild of entrepreneur Beth Santos, WITS bills itself as “the first and only travel blogging summit by and for women.” And it’s a tangible outgrowth of Go Girl Travel Network, a resource and online community for women travelers, of which Santos is founder and CEO.

I first wrote about Go Girl last year, helping spread the word about a fabulous networking event that Santos and her spirited team were hosting. But this weekend, they’re taking it WAY to the next level with WITS, a March 14-16 fest at Chicago’s historic Palmer House Hilton Hotel that will give attendees a chance to “meet other female travel bloggers, connect with brands, build expertise and engage in the global sisterhood of traveling women.”

Ahhh … nothing like being able to shout hallelujah! along with the already-converted. And although it’s about seven blocks from my downtown Chicago condo, I thoroughly expect it’ll transport me many, many miles away in spirit.

It’s hard to believe, but the last time I went to a Travel blogging conference was the FIRST time I went to one. It was Travel Blog Exchange’s Chicago conference back in 1999, when I was still a newbie blogger. Afterward, I wrote on this blog how “going to events like these helps me remember why I LOVE travel, why I’m willing to spend most of my disposable dollars to see the world – and they remind me of the power of WORDS.” That’s still true today.

I’ll be writing about Women In Travel Summit for “TCW Travel Connection,” the Travel blog I created a few years ago and still maintain for Today’s Chicago Woman Magazine. But I’ll be sure to share it with my UrbanTravelGirls, as well. Santos and her traveling sisterhood plan to make WITS an annual event—and I’ll let you know where they’re heading next.

Until then, my friends—let’s all keep on traveling!

12 Comments March 15, 2014

Want to travel under the Tuscan sun? SimpleItaly’s ‘Celebration of the Senses’ April tour is for you

Ah, memories! Here I am, standing under the Tuscan sun during my living-in-Florence days.

Ah, memories! Here I am, standing under the Tuscan sun during my living-in-Florence days in 2004.

As you UrbanTravelGirl readers know, Italy is near and dear to my heart. It’s the first place I lived abroad, and I’ll always look back fondly on the seven months I spent in romantic Renaissance Florence. I not only got to write incredible freelance Food and Travel stories during this time, but those assignments sometimes took me into the breathtakingly beautiful countryside of Tuscany—the region in which Florence sits. Gorgeous films like “Under the Tuscan Sun” extol the sensual pleasures of Italian life amidst rolling hills and stately cypress trees. No wonder Tuscany is so popular with travelers from around the world … who wouldn’t consider this a trip of a lifetime?

I know it’s Christmas Eve, and whatever gifts you’re planning to give have already been purchased. But what if, just for argument’s sake, you were blessed to be able to give someone (or even better, yourself) the gift of Tuscany this holiday season? And I have one specific gift in mind.

Want to experience the Tuscan sun yourself? From April 5-12, 2014, SimpleItaly's "Celebration of the Senses" tour will call this luxury villa near Siena its home base.

Want to experience the Tuscan sun yourself? From April 5-12, 2014, SimpleItaly’s “Celebration of the Senses” tour will call this luxury villa near Siena its home base.

As I just wrote in a post for my Today’s Chicago Woman Travel blog, my fellow Italophiles and former Florence, Italy, residents Sharon and Walter Sanders are leading a fully escorted eight-day tour of Tuscany through the lifestyle company they call SimpleItaly: Celebrating Your Inner Italian. From April 5-12, 2014, guests who sign up for “SimpleItaly Adventure in Tuscany Tour: A Celebration of the Senses” will call Villa Pipistrelli, a luxurious 17th century villa near Siena that’s a converted farmhouse, their home.

Walter and Sharon Sanders are diehard Italophiles who formerly lived in Florence -- and they'll be your engaging hosts for SimpleItaly's eight-day tour in April 2014.

Walter and Sharon Sanders are diehard Italophiles who formerly lived (and actually got married!) in Florence — and they’ll be your engaging hosts for SimpleItaly’s eight-day tour in April 2014.

The trip’s incredible itinerary comes courtesy of Sharon and Walter, Americans who were fortunate enough to marry in the historic Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence. Like me, Sharon MUST have been Italian in a past life. My former editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, she’s a celebrated food writer, editor and author whose Cooking Up an Italian Life: Simple Pleasures of Italy in Recipes and Stories is a must-have for anyone who dreams, thinks and wants to cook Italian. (An aside: a few years back, Sharon invited me to tap into my “inner Italian” and share my thoughts on her SimpleItaly website. Read this, and you’ll see why I—and millions of others—have fallen completely under Italy’s spell.)

Imagine taking advantage of these incredible activities during SimpleItaly’s springtime in Tuscany tour:

  • 7 nights accommodation at Villa Pipistrelli
  • Transfers to and from the Florence Airport
  • Ground transportation to all scheduled activities
  • All breakfasts; seven dinners and fine lunches with wine (certamente … you’ll be in Italy!)
  • Casual learning sessions with English-speaking local artisans, guest experts and authors
  • Olive oil samplings and wine tastings
  • Pecorino cheese-making demo and tasting
  • Foraging in the local woods and tasting edible wild greens
  • Pasta- and pizza-making classes
  • Sessions with Tuscany-based authors Jennifer Criswell of At Least You’re in Tuscany and Dario Castagno of Too Much Tuscan Wine (as if there’s such a thing!)
  • Tour of UNESCO World Heritage city of Siena—including its lively outdoor market
  • Visit to Arezzo Antiques Fair
  • Free time to explore the gorgeous Tuscan countryside
Guests on SimpleItaly's "Celebration of the Senses" tour will learn to cook the Tuscan way in this gorgeous Villa Pippistrelli kitchen during a group cooking lesson.

Guests on SimpleItaly’s “Celebration of the Senses” tour will learn to cook the Tuscan way in this gorgeous Villa Pipistrelli kitchen during a group cooking lesson.

Many gifts we’ll give and receive this holiday season are the kind we’ll gush over and then stash in a closet. But investing in travel—either for those you love or yourself—will pay dividends your whole life long. This SimpleItaly trip is $2,495 per person based on double occupancy (not including airfare). Experiencing bella Italia the way the locals do, along with like-minded tour guides and travelers, is quite simply priceless. Less than a handful of spaces are left, so you’ll need to move fast.

If you’re one of those who’s promised to think and live more globally in 2014, what better way to start?

Buon Natale e Buon Anno, my fellow travelers!

Leave a Comment December 24, 2013

Hotels get female-friendly with women-only floors and amenities

Appropriately termed "Duchess Rooms" when transformed for female guests, those like this one at the boutique-chic DUKES London Hotel in Mayfair pamper women with women-sized slippers, makeup mirrors, lifestyle magazines, and fresh flowers.

Appropriately termed “Duchess Rooms” when transformed for female guests, those like this one at the boutique-chic DUKES London Hotel in Mayfair pamper women with women-sized slippers, makeup mirrors, lifestyle magazines, and fresh flowers.

As a woman who used to travel solo for my work with a global corporation—and who’s done the same for pleasure to countries around the world—I’d try to plan my trips with an eye toward comfort and convenience. When traveling for work, I’d often stay in large, plush hotels that catered to their guests’ every need. Even when I was footing the bill, I looked for bed and breakfasts that offered more than just a bed and breakfast, but where owners offered personalized service, helping arrange restaurant and tour reservations and off-the-beaten-path advice.

But I never thought to ask for special services—or stay in a particular place—specifically because I’m a woman.

These days, more and more hotels have decided female business travelers and tourists are a niche market they need to reach—and articles have cropped up on newspaper, magazine and travel websites detailing this new approach. USA Today recently published a piece about Washington, D.C.’s Hamilton Crowne Plaza and the special bath salts, magnifying mirror, and manicure accoutrements they make available on their female-focused floor. “In other words,” wrote Nancy Trejos, “you’ll get pretty much anything you need to pamper yourself.”

Then there’s the DUKES London Hotel on chi-chi St. James’s Place, with its aptly named “Duchess Rooms.” Rather than setting aside a specific floor for female guests, this Mayfair boutique property can transform any of its rooms by adding smaller slippers, makeup mirrors, female-friendly magazines, and fresh flowers. USA Today and Condé Nast Traveler’s website also dished about the women-only perks at Vancouver, B.C.’s 4-star Georgian Court Hotel, which include female-only floors awash in “curling irons, yoga mats, and satin-padded hangers.”

From a marketing perspective, it makes sense. Marybeth Bond of GutsyTraveler.com reports that a whopping 80% of all travel decisions are made by women, regardless of who they travel with, who pays for the trip, or where they go. No wonder hotels the world over have trained their sights on us.

I suppose there are SOME things we women consider differently than men do when we’re on the road—and one of those is likely safe transportation. When I travel—and especially getting around by myself—I generally scout around ahead of time for affordable get-from-the-airport options such as shuttle buses that drop you off in the center of town, such as the $15-to-$26-one-way fares on Les Cars Air France in Paris.  Or I’ll choose easy-to-navigate city trains, such as the $5 Blue Line “L” from O’Hare International in Chicago or the $21 Leonardo Express from Fiumicino Airport in Rome. But since I’ve never mastered the art of packing light, even after all these years of hoofing it all over the world, that means a LOT of schlepping suitcases, purses and laptop bags.

Female travelers who want to roll like rock stars--or at least pampered VIPs who don't have to schlep their own bags--can splurge and opt for Blacklane chauffeured service in major cities around the world.

Female travelers who want to roll like rock stars–or at least pampered VIPs who don’t have to schlep their own bags–can splurge and opt for Blacklane chauffeured service in major cities around the world.

And since I’m a woman who likes to travel with all of her stuff (it’s hard for me to leave things I know I’ll need at home), it’s sometimes nice to spend the extra cash and know certain perks and conveniences will be waiting when you arrive at your destination. While I rarely splurge on a car service, those like Blacklane—which offer rides in luxe, grown-up vehicles in some of my favorite cities, including New York, San Francisco and Paris—start your trip off an a classy, stress-free note. Talk about making a girl feel like a rock star when she arrives at the airport late and exhausted, with multiple bags in tow.

If you’re traveling on company business and can write off the cost, such a service can be worth its weight in gold. Rather than hoping to hail a taxi or navigate an unfamiliar large city and its traffic-choked streets, hiring an hourly chauffeured service like Blacklane’s to transport you between appointments can be a smart business move. And for women who occasionally like to roll like a “Sex and the City” gal in a Lincoln Town Car or Mercedes E and S Class sedans, it’s the way to go. Even we independent women (and we are those!) appreciate a bit of pampering now and then.

So tell me—would you be jazzed or just ticked off by female-only amenities and hotel floors? Would such conveniences encourage you to patronize businesses or hotel chains that specifically target you with services because of your gender—especially if it makes you feel safer and more secure? I’m curious to know what you UrbanTravelGirls think about this “trend.”

2 Comments December 19, 2013

Reflections on a return to France … this time with my dad

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.

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.

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.

9 Comments October 9, 2013

Moving from one chapter to another … leaving France, returning home

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!

11 Comments March 12, 2013

Give a fascinating glimpse of African-Americans in Paris for the holidays—or anytime

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.

Bon voyage! 

2 Comments December 22, 2012

‘Living like a local’ on the road—and chatting about it on the air

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.

4 Comments October 8, 2012

See the world … if only through a novel

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.

10 Comments August 27, 2012

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