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 24, 2013
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.
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.”
December 19, 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
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 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
For some international travelers, NOTHING compares to the moment of arrival, when they touch down in a new place and are ready to check out the scene. Others love arriving back HOME, posting their photos on Facebook and Flickr, sharing their travel memories with family and friends. But for me, a pseudo-obsessive Type A, what I love most about travel is the PLANNING that goes into crafting and shaping a trip.
Take my trip to Europe early next week. A wonderfully thoughtful friend in the south of France owns several beautifully furnished Riviera Experience (www.rivieraexperience.com) vacation rental apartments and had a vacancy in one that overlooks the breathtaking Bay of Villefranche. During an e-mail exchange, she invited me to come for a visit. I thought her offer was far too generous and started to decline, but finally graciously accepted, as I’d LOVE to see her and return to one of the most gorgeous places on earth. And for me, a planner to my heart, that’s where the fun begins!
Continue March 13, 2011