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
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
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
So I’m headed to France in a little over one week, and am alternately super-psyched, nervous, thrilled, stressed to the max, giddy with excitement, and worried. While part of me cannot WAIT to board that Iberia flight headed for Europe, my evil twin fears that I’ll spend all those trans-Atlantic hours obsessing about … STUFF.
Will my limited French-speaking skills make me feel (literally) like the “village idiot” when I get to Samois-sur-Seine, the picturesque place south of Paris where I’ll be living? Will I find enough freelance writing and consulting work to keep me challenged—but not so much that I end up overstretched and fall back into my workaholic ways? Will I finally meet a decent man who is what he claims to be—or will the language gap (and his sure-to-be-charming French ways and accent) make it that much tougher to figure it out?
When you decide to pull up stakes and move by yourself to the other side of the world, the tasks you need to handle before leaving home are LEGION….
Continue December 20, 2011
Those of you who follow this blog know how much I love Europe—and that there’s a super-special place in my heart for France, where I’ve spent many incredible times over the past several years, from the north to the scenic south. FINALLY, I’m getting the chance to actually LIVE there … and I’ll be a mere 40-minute train ride from Paris, my favorite city anywhere in the world!!! The plan is to leave the States soon after Christmas and launch my “new life” in France—JUST in time to ring in the New Year ….
Continue December 4, 2011
We’ve all read books and watched films about folks (often single women, it seems) who travel to some exotic locale in search of self-discovery, fall in love with this new place, and decide to trade in their not-quite-right lives at home for a new one overseas. You UrbanTravelGirls know the 2003 film “Under the Tuscan Sun” motivated me to move to storybook-perfect Florence, Italy. The Frances Mayes book that inspired the film, Under the Tuscan Sun, has been translated into dozens of languages and prompted countless reader pilgrimages to Mayes’ adopted Tuscan hometown of Cortona.
Author Peter Mayle jump-started the modern expat-exchanges-hectic-urban-life-for-adventure-abroad trend with A Year in Provence, a book that when became an international best-seller when first published in 1989. In it, Mayle chronicled his life as a British expatriate in Ménerbes, a town in this gorgeous part of southern France. This former London ad executive and his wife traveled to Provence on vacation but eventually took the plunge, relocating completely from the UK to France. And once his books caught fire and made him rich—no doubt inspiring legions of folks with visions of living abroad—Mayle became the patron saint of reinventing oneself in a foreign land.
But when does an UrbanTravelGirl decide that a mere vacation doesn’t do it, that she’d rather pull up stakes and actually MOVE to another country and build a life for herself there instead of here (wherever that happens to be)? ….
Continue December 21, 2010
There’s nothing like reliving old memories—especially those that have shaped you into the person you are today. And last week, thanks to a fabulous Chicago-based Travel radio show, I got the chance to reminisce about my sistagirl-living-abroad-in-Italy experience from five years ago!
The hour-long show is called The Traveling Eye (http://www.thetravelingeye.com/), and its programming is especially designed to appeal to upscale African-American consumers and travelers. It’s hosted by two dynamic sisters: my Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., soror and Chicago radio legend Bonnie DeShong and travel specialist and Advantage International President and Founder Ja’Vonne Harley. Listen to THEIR show and before it’s over, you’ll want to be online or on the phone booking some fabulous getaway. And some advertisers don’t believe that black folks travel—and travel in style? Along with WHUR-FM in Washington, D.C., Bonnie and Ja’Vonne are leading a tour of nearly 100 folks to Egypt and Dubai in February—and this nearly two-week trip is SOLD OUT!
During last week’s show, Bonnie and fill-in host Gene Harley asked me and a super-bad American expat sister named Tiffany Zunker who’s lived abroad for half her life to share thoughts on why we first got interested in living abroad….
Continue October 15, 2010
For most folks, spending 10 bucks and a couple hours at the movies is all about passive entertainment. But sometimes, you encounter a cinematic gem that literally becomes life-changing, that totally alters the way you see the world. That one for me was 2003’s “Under the Tuscan Sun,” (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0328589/) which inspired me, following a major surgery and reordering of life priorities, to quit my corporate job and pack my bags for fabulous Firenze (Florence), Italy.
Even now, if I’m flipping channels on the TV and “Tuscan Sun” is on, regardless of whether the film’s at the beginning, middle or end, I plop down and watch. And certamente, I own the DVD—and when I’m feeling the need for a bit of inspiration, I’ll view it again. I recently interviewed Under the Tuscan Sun (http://www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780767900386) author Frances Mayes (http://www.francesmayesbooks.com/) for a national Travel story, and that conversation took me back to those dreamy days of living in bella Italia.
The latest film buzz, of course, is about Julia Roberts’ “Eat Pray Love” (http://www.letyourselfgo.com/), which hit U.S. cinemas earlier this month. As I’m sure you know (or have heard, whether you wanted to or not), it’s based on Elizabeth Gilbert’s monster best-selling memoir (http://www.elizabethgilbert.com/eatpraylove.htm) about ditching New York City after a traumatic divorce and subsequent love affair and spending a year traveling through Italy, India and Indonesia. (Her gig was WAY easier than mine, as her publisher’s book advance funded her year of self-discovery.) Personally, I never got past the “Eat” portion of the book, but perhaps that’s because I’m too Italy-obsessed to care about the rest.
But here’s what got me thinking: none of the films I’ve seen extolling the joys of traveling and/or relocating abroad has ever starred a black woman—or a woman of color AT ALL….
Continue August 27, 2010
I’m TOTALLY proud of my good friend, Delta Sigma Theta sorority sister, and former fellow Italy expatriate Kelly Carter (http://www.kellyecarter.com/), for co-authoring Venus Williams’ FABULOUS new tome, Come To Win: Business Leaders, Artists, Doctors, and Other Visionaries on How Sports Can Help You Top Your Profession (http://www.amazon.com/Come-Win-Business-Visionaries-Profession/dp/0061718254/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1278370645&sr=1-1) (Amistad, $25.99). This incredible new hardback features Venus talking to some of the world’s most impressive folks—from former President Bill Clinton to Four Seasons Hotels founder Isadore Sharp, from Virgin Group’s Sir Richard Branson to global chef extraordinaire Marcus Samuelsson (http://marcussamuelsson.com/)—about how taking part in sports helped drive their success in a host of other fields.
And Kelly should know. A former sportswriter for some of America’s top newspapers, she covered national and international sports for USA Today, the Dallas Morning News, the Orange County Register, and many others. And she’s no stranger to the famous folks’ beat, either, having covered celebrities for People Magazine, USA Today, and other global publications.
A travel writer who’s literally circled the globe (I’ve lost count of how many countries she’s visited), Kelly and I met during our days as fellow sistergirl expats in bella Italia….
Continue July 5, 2010
Times are tough, and even us diehard globetrotters are finding ourselves grounded these days. But there ARE ways to travel the world without leaving the borders of the United States. In a recent post for my “TCW Travel Connection” blog, which I write for a great local monthly magazine called Today’s Chicago Woman (http://www.tcwmag.com), I’ve written about “going global” by sampling fare at ethnic cafes and restaurants, checking out foreign films, soaking up the sounds from other lands, etc.
But surprisingly, you can ALSO take a trip around much of the world by visiting Vegas. YES, Las Vegas. Even this most American of cities offers something for the global traveler in you….
Continue November 12, 2009