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
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
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