Weezer, The Travel Companion

Finding the best travel companion can be a lifelong quest.

In the winter of 2003, I welcomed a chihuahua puppy into my hectic early-twenties life. Weezer spent most of his young life tucked happily into a bag while I weaved from here to there. He got used to people and places, sounds and smells. He got used to other animals – cats, rabbits and birds. His small size made him easy to pack, easy to incorporate into my schedule and his cool, calm and collected temperament made him welcome everywhere. Over the years, his presence became just assumed. “Where’s the Weeze?” is always a question I hear when I show up anywhere without him.

Today marks the 13th year since his birth in a sleepy central California town. In two months time, on December 20th, we will have been together every day for almost 13 years.

I call Weezer, “The Ambassador” for the way in which I’ve observed people from all over the world accept him. I have been incredibly lucky to share my journeys with such a respectable gentleman. Happy Birthday and Buon Compleanno my friend!

Below I share 13 photos (click for fuller, enlarged version) from 13 years of traveling the globe together!

Chiesa di Sant’Agata dei Goti, Rome, Italy 2015

Chiesa di Sant’Agata dei Goti, Rome, Italy 2015

Parco Del Colle Oppio, Rome, Italy 2010

Parco Del Colle Oppio, Rome, Italy 2010

Panhandle, San Francisco, California 2016

Panhandle, San Francisco, California 2016

California State Capitol, Sacramento, California 2014

California State Capitol, Sacramento, California 2014

Santa Barbara, California 2013

Santa Barbara, California 2013

Venice, Italy 2013

Venice, Italy 2013

Pleasanton, California 2004

Pleasanton, California 2004

Naples, Italy 2016

Naples, Italy 2016

Villa Medici, Rome, Italy 2015

Villa Medici, Rome, Italy 2015

Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles, California 2014

Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles, California 2014

Perugia, Italy 2016

Perugia, Italy 2016

Luxembourg Gardens, 2006

Luxembourg Gardens, 2006

Conservatory of Flowers, San Francisco, California 2007

Conservatory of Flowers, San Francisco, California 2007

 

 

Modern Day Explorers: The Positive Side of the Columbus Effect

Christopher Columbus has, at least in my lifetime, gone from celebrated explorer to shunned conquerer. As far as historical figures go, he has landed himself a permanent spot on the naughty list alongside others such as Ferdinand Magellan and Vasco da Gama. It is no secret his voyages across the Atlantic brought a varied state of pestilence, slavery, and decline for those previously living in the Americas. You might say his placement of the Spanish flag on a land already occupied by a rich society of people with distinct traditions and customs of their own, was quite egotistical and unarguably fueled by self-interest.

And while I recognize the faults in his quest, as well as the prolonged suffering his actions inflicted, I also refuse to minimize the spirit of exploration in which his voyages were taken.

As a young child, Columbus was first introduced to me as an Italian hero. The more macabre aspects of his explorations were absent from my childhood idealism.

I was fascinated by explorers. I idolized women like Junko Tabei, the first woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest in 1975. I was captivated by the Lady Hester Stanhope, who after a series of severe romantic disappointments, left Britain for the Middle East, where she conducted the first modern archeological excavations of the Holy Land. Historical lore says that when she arrived in Athens on her way east, men were so charmed by her beauty and conversational skills, the English poet Lord Byron jumped into the sea to greet her. She was a woman of persistence, delivered into the hands of constant economic and romantic failure. Most admirable was her ability to defy societal norms of the 18th century.

Lady Stanhope continued her exploration, after a shipwreck on the Turkish island of Rhodes, in full men’s attire. She refused to don the veil insisted upon Middle-Eastern women. She continued to dress in a more male-centric manner in order to blend and level the playing field throughout her life. She was a fascinating individual who broadened not only the geographical world for foreigners but also for women as well. She is completely worthy of some further acquaintance.

As a mini-explorer, I stared at maps for hours, accounting every detail. I created alternative lands in creekbeds and gardens around my childhood home. I dressed up as Napoléon Bonaparte for Halloween. I covered my room with posters displaying foreign destinations I one day dreamed of traveling to.

I was born with an explorer’s heart – a curiosity of the places and people speckled throughout the globe, and I owe my very early curiosity to the men such as Christopher Columbus.

And so it is with that spirit of exploration, I wish everyone a Happy Columbus Day.

Travel Well,
LeAnne J. Smith
Thesis Travel

Gastronomic Specialties in Rome’s Termini Station: The New Central Market Rome

In 2006, my seven-months-pregnant sister and I boarded a train to Naples at Rome’s Termini station. Due to our early morning departure and sleepy composure, we found ourselves ordering a less than appealing breakfast at one of the many mediocre food stalls flanking the main corridor. As we grabbed our food, we made our way to the train platform just in time to settle into our seats and down our breakfast items. For some reason, I still recall that seemingly insignificant breakfast on that brisk October morning. Oh, how I wish that trip in 2006 took place today – ten years later, coincidentally, to the exact day.

Two days ago on October 5th, Rome’s Termini station, a chaotic den of brightly lit pathways and mediocre food stalls opened the Central Market (Il Mercato Centrale Roma), a gastronomic reprieve for travelers who finds themselves within the swiftly paced, somewhat lackluster environment at Termini.

Situated at the Via Giolitti entrance into the station, the Central Market is home to 15 artisanal market stalls arranged in a fashion not dissimilar to a market square, or piazza if you will. Dominating the space overhead is the cappa mazzoniana, an architectural hood designed in the 1930’s by architect Angiolo Mazzoni. Accompanying the culinary delights of the stalls is a wine bar and restaurant overseen by the Michelin star German chef, Oliver Glowig’s – all aptly located on the second level with terrace views overlooking the bustle below. While the space’s modern design is something the Italians do best, the real showcase is the food.

Amongst my favorite artisanal food items in all of Rome is the delicious products that come from the ovens of Gabrielle Bonci, owner of the famous Pizzarum and Panificio in Rome’s Prati district. With a stall at the market, travelers and locals alike no longer need to venture into the off-set Prati district to taste his beloved craft. Additionally, I am sure the staff is as lovely here as they are at Bonci’s flagship store.

Also occupying a stall space is the proprietor of the inventive food known as a trapizzino – a triangle pizza-like pocket, (open on one side) of bread stuffed with stewed recipes like polpetta al sugo (meatball sauce), pollo cacciatora (chicken cacciatore), or parmigiana di melanzane (eggplant parmesan). With its cult-like following in Rome, a trapizzino is an excellent alternative to the tramezzino, from which is bears part of its name – a triangular panini flanked with crustless, tasteless white bread popular in every cafe and bar in Italy.

Other choices range from seasonal produce and regional specialties, with one stall even catering to vegans and vegetarians.

With opening hours as early as 7 am and closing at midnight, the new market tucked into Termini is a welcomed, accessible addition to the beautiful culinary traditions of the Eternal City.

And I am almost positive my 9-year-old niece, whose last meal at Termini Station from the comforts of her mother’s stomach was less than remarkable, would be thrilled to visit the market with me.

Travel Well,
LeAnne J. Smith
Thesis Travel

Do you like to eat? In September 2017, Thesis Travel will host 12 travelers who will gather together in Milan to set out on an eleven-day gastronomic tour and tasting of Italy’s finest products. “Gastronomic Italy: Culinary Excellence and the Slow Food Movement” will stop in Bra, Parma, Modena, Bologna, Florence, Siena, Orvieto, and Rome. If you are interested in learning more about this trip, please email me.

Eat Like an Italian: Italy’s Slow Food Movement and the Salone del Gusto

As an Italian-American child, the kitchen was the central room in my family growing up. For us Italian-Americans, our earliest memories contain images of our grandmother in the kitchen, mom along with an aunt or two assisting while vegetables were cut, pasta was plunged into boiling water and hand-chopped bunches of basil were delicately stirred into a huge pot of sauce. Hungry children shuffled between their feet, running in and out of the kitchen, playing tag, screaming at each other in reprimand for small bouts of childhood teasing, waiting, observing the ritual of loving preparation. To this day, I don’t know if there is anything I consume that gives me as much comfort as my mother’s spaghetti.

The way in which we prepare, serve and eat food connects us to our heritage and plays a huge part of our human experience. This is true not only of Italians, but cultures across the globe.

Every traveler I have ever spoken to about Italy comments foremost on the food – the multitude, the simplicity, the freshness and flavor. And so it is with great enthusiasm I share with you today one of the most encouraging, and rapidly growing movements surrounding Italian food culture.

This week marks the start of the biennial event, Terra Madre Salone del Gusto, an international gastronomic festival taking place in Turin, Italy dedicated to the Slow Food movement. It is an event I am working to take a group of food lovers and those interested in biodiversity, agricultural sustainability and eco-gastronomic issues to in September 2018.

In 1986 Carlo Petrini, at the time a culinary journalist, founded the Slow Food movement as an opposing response to the opening of a McDonalds near the Spanish Steps in Rome. In 1989, three short years after that initial protest, representatives from 15 countries gathered in Paris to sign the Slow Food manifesto. “Let us rediscover the flavors and savors of regional cooking and banish the degrading effects of Fast Food.” the manifesto declares.

Slow Food’s primary goal is to preserve traditional and regional cuisine, to encourage the farming of plants, seeds and livestock which is characteristic of the local ecosystem – and at the same time devalue the production and promotion of fast food and globalization, which we have found leads to an overwhelming amount of disease, shortened life expectancy and a diminished quality of life for both humans and animals.

The movement towards food cultivated, regulated and manufactured with the utmost respect to the local region and its people has spread to over 160 countries worldwide with 100,000 members. Each country is divided into chapters (convivium) and each convivium is responsible for promoting local artisans, local farmers, and local flavors through regional events such as taste workshops, wine tastings, and farmers’ markets.

It is no surprise America has embraced these ideas with the inception of Slow Food USA. Americans love and value Italian products. We often consider them superior to our own. And we can no longer deny that our country, our planet, is at its limits in terms of global warming, deforestation, and the deterioration of human health (to name a few).

A fantastic resource provided by Slow Food USA is a list of endangered foods. The hope is that if we are aware of these diminishing natural resources, we will be more apt to mobilize in the favor of resource heritage. Did you know American Rye Whiskey is facing extinction? We invented the stuff! But with the diminishing cultivation of rye grain in America, the US is now forced to import it.

2004 saw the inception of the first university focusing on the organic relationships between food and cultures and training those pursuing careers in food and tourism industries. The University of Gastronomic Sciences located in Bra, Italy – also the home of Slow Foods headquarters, is a huge step towards acknowledging that the role of food not only in Italy, but on a global scale needs to be researched, preserved, analyzed and brought to the forefront of our agricultural economy.

The idea of Slow Food is not simply attempting to preserve a cultural food heritage, but also an organization questioning and exposing our rapidly declining food culture. Signore Petrini’s manifesto exposes a deeper, more rooted, more immediate issue.

As Americans, we never stop. We work, and we work, and we work some more. While I greatly admire the American work ethic, it is lovely to see Americans slow down when they travel to Italy. Americans are fascinated by the Italians. They sit in piazzas, they take long lunches, they sleep in the middle of the day! These are not American concepts of every day life and most Americans believe such leisure should be reserved for vacations. We have for much too long (since the 1920’s post WWI automobile and drive-in boom) cast aside traditional processes in lieu of swift production and cost effectiveness.

Interestingly enough, the Slow Food movement inspired Cittaslow (translated as “Slow City”), a non-profit organization founded in the Chianti region of Tuscany, promoting the adaptation of these food concepts – local, regional and sustainable – to how we live our lives amongst the urban makeup. Cittaslow’s motivation is to “enlarge the philosophy of Slow Food to local communities and to government of towns, applying the concepts of eco-gastronomy at practice of everyday life.”

These cities, such as beloved Positano, Orvieto and Bra, who have received the official Cittaslow recognition abide by certain criteria – they must have a population less than 50,000 and accept guidelines such as working to conserve the local environment, implementing programs to promote small businesses and provide solutions to slow down the pace of urban traffic flow.

From my many years living and working in Italy, I am not shocked this movement found its roots in Italy. I am not shocked that the rest of the world has taken notice. Italians can be exemplary when it comes to quality of life in many regards, especially when it comes to honoring the rich traditions of our cultural Italian heritage.

After all, many have argued, it is the unforgettable, impeccable food of this country that is the true masterpiece.

Travel Well,
LeAnne J. Smith
Thesis Travel

*In September 2017, Thesis Travel will host 12 travelers who will gather together in Milan to set out on an eleven-day gastronomic tour and tasting of Italy’s finest products. “Gastronomic Italy: Culinary Excellence and the Slow Food Movement” will stop in Bra, Parma, Modena, Bologna, Florence, Siena and Orvieto. If you are interested in learning more about this trip, please email me

The Power of Connections

In the past month, three different friends have reached out to me about the artist Maria AbramovićEach stated how they thought of me while watching her documentary, The Artist is Present. “It’s eerie how much of you I see in her.” At first and even now, these comments are quite curious to me. I am not an artist nor do I consider myself ANYTHING close to a lover of contemporary art. I am not that deep. Not that touchy-feely. Not that abstract. Just this week, I spent the morning forcing myself through the SFMOMA only to roll my eyes about a hundred times at blank canvases and porcelain toilets. (Please, the next time we see each other, I do not want to argue about Duchamp. Let’s just agree to disagree). I’ve had Abramović’s TED Talk, The art made of trust, vulnerability and connection queued for quite some time. I watched it and then watched it again. I sat through the documentary thrice times in a row. After three days of watching her, obsessing over her work, enraptured by her thoughts and actions, contemplating what my friends could possibly correlate between her and I, I truly and fantastically gave up.

But during my research and subsequent contemplation, after hours of attempts for meaning from this method of artistic expression, I gathered something quite incredible from Abramović – the idea of vulnerability and connection. And furthermore, where we actually practice vulnerability and how we find connections.

But what does this have to do with travel? Everything. If we let it.

One of the loveliest, thrilling but sometimes painful events of my life have been the connections made with strangers during my travels – whether it’s been a momentary meeting on a busy street that resulted in intrinsically modifying who I am as an individual or a doomed transcontinental romance gone bad.

I love to meet people because of the manner in which we as a global society can connect and communicate. I love stories and histories more than anything, I am always in search for more meaningful, bonded connections. This doesn’t mean I am good at it or at being vulnerable, which Abramović suggests is the most vital element to making a connection with another individual. I try, as much as possible, to be open when I travel – to take people in, to keep my heart and mind open, adjusting to the culture I am partaking in. But vulnerability is something I have, in the past, gravely avoided. To be internally vulnerable is to be open to rejection and be perceived as weak, and I fear weakness as if it was the Black Plague.

That all changed for me during my Spring stay in Italy. I embraced those qualities I was most afraid of. I failed. Gloriously. Miserably. But I did them and although I am still struggling with the sheer terror of my own vulnerability and on top of that a catastrophic failure – I am now able to see with clarity all the failures, all the times I missed opportunities for connection during my travels. And therefore, I am practicing art, vulnerability and openness in a space that feels somewhat safer to fail in. San Francisco.

Some examples.

I recently experienced this during a dinner party where I was seated next to a striking Serbian gentleman. After a pleasant introduction and my side eye of disdain that I had to sit next to this foreigner for a full dinner when I wasn’t feeling particular social or even sane, I walked away still thinking about that evening quite frequently. (And this is not to say it was romantic, although he was drop dead gorgeous.)

The evening turned into he and I huddled on one side of the table – debating life, religion, art, politics, love and what exactly a connection is and how people reach it. I believe it to be circumstance, willingness, the force of the universe, and chemistry. It happens or it doesn’t. He believed connections were built over long term interactions and trust. Nay. I disagreed and discussed Abramović’s platform. The next day I was pleasantly surprised to see a text come in from Serb stating, “You are a fascinating girl. I’m convinced. Connections can be instantaneous.” I, most likely, will never see this person again. It was a fleeting connection that served for the evening. I am better than I was when I arrived to the dinner party.

Since I have been home I have grasped every opportunity I can to explore connections when I feel strong enough to do so. Some come in the form of kindness towards strangers. Some are just nurturing connections I already have with people I trust and admire. I am exploring people and places, attempting to make connections with not only others but the landscape.

I am hopping on bikes, whipping through the urban streets of San Francisco with an ever-handsome companion. Swinging our tires through graffitied alleys and stopping for snacks and a quick drink. I am setting off in the dawn hours tucked into the passenger seat of a friend’s car as a medley of 90’s hip-hop songs vibrate the hot cup of coffee in my hand. We wind through coastal forests – I screech for my friend to pull over on a deserted patch so I can run into the misty trees which sprinkle their drops across my face as I laugh and cry like a mad person. In that moment, I am happy and I am tormented and I am alive.

I am willing my legs to pace faster as the sparkling San Francisco night engulfs my small body, passing loud bars with hip groups of beautiful people, arriving on the street corner to embrace my evening’s companion. We sit across from one another, myself attempting to forget the past, my companion trying to predict the future, as we laugh into the night. We make friends with fellow patrons and end the evening atop Coit Tower after I call in a favor and get the locked door opened for us at 1 in the morning. We wind our way to the top, laughing at the comfort of each other’s company, passing murals executed by Diego Rivera’s students until we reach the highest point. It is windy and the fog tickles our noses. The lights of the city appear and disappear as the fog horns bellow across the Bay. I am saying to my companion how every time I see her, I see someone new. My companion responds, “Because every time you return here, you are new.” I swallow the cold night air, hide my face in a shadow and wipe away a small tear from my cheek.

No matter where in the world you are, no matter how rural or how urban an area may be, there is always something new to see. Someone new to be. Someone new to meet. Because every time you look, you look through new eyes. And the bulk of this new person is the other people you have met along your way, the connections you let yourself experience. Maybe that new you is love and maybe it is pain or loss but you see the people and places before you modified, adapted into what you need in that moment.

Travel is the only thing we spend money on that is guaranteed to make us richer. We all know that life cannot be measured in monetary value. Life is only to be measured in the goodness in our hearts, the people we were honest with and the talents we utilize to make other’s experience on earth more bearable.

And while I still wholeheartedly do not understand modern art, contemporary media and a porcelain toilet sitting on a pedestal on the gallery floor, I have been able to understand the value in its idea. Thank you, Marina.

The Beautiful Side of Notorious Naples

I am in love with the world. I’m in love with cities I’ve never been to and people I’ve never met. Exploring culture moves me, challenges me and no matter how long I sit in trains and planes, culture can never be exhausted. I could wander my entire life and never know it in it’s entirety. It’s thrilling, at times can be heartbreaking and for now when I am young, ambitious and free, has kept me engaged.

I am a perpetual runaway. Born with a wanderer’s heart. Nothing permanent. Nothing too familiar. In the times I’ve lived in a place for more than a few years, each day I worked and lived to leave. Always in the forefront of mind was the distant reprieve of departure. Even in my happiest, most content situations. It is not because I am comfortable with change or that I don’t miss those I have left behind – I am always missing someone, somewhere. My mother believes this facet of my character to be a form of sabotage – running away from the good in my life when things get too close. She may be right but for now, coming into contact with people whose social, ethnic, religious and political values and traditions are so vastly different from my American sensibilities has given me something to hold on to.

A few days ago, I entered Rome’s Termini train station as my tired heart started to pace. I knew I needed to runaway, if only for a few days, from a situation that has lately seemed to plague my mind’s landscape. As I approached the entrance of the station, I felt the sad coldness melt slightly to the sights and sounds surrounding me.

People moved at what I call the “traveler’s pace”. Half lounged casually around, perched on their rolling suitcases or strewn across the platform floor on alert for their train dock to appear on the board. Others, much like me, danced around the symphony making our way towards our vessel, ready to take us away, near or far. The pulse of the station beat rapidly, giving away to notes and tempos so familiar, so needed to this restless mind of mine.

I haven’t always been so aware that this compulsion of mine was a form of escape. I’ve spent the better part of the past two years exploring the curious question as to the why’s of my peculiar need to remain mobile, detached from people and places. I believe I have become quite self aware in the past two years and I am engaging in a healthy practice to better understand the waves of my character. As with everything, wanderlust definitely has its downfalls and benefits. And as I continue to explore, I find the smallest flicker that I may, in time no longer wish to runaway.

As my train departs the station, I flip through my music selection settling on Death Cab for Cutie’s Transatlanticism (this poeticism doesn’t write itself) and become engrossed in a self evaluation of my current state. I tell myself this is a healthy excavation from the Eternal City. I reduce my assessment down to my inclination towards the aesthetics. I love being in the company of beautiful things, no matter how ugly others may believe them to be – cities, landscapes, art and people. I know where I am headed as I barrel through Lazio, headed south, is both beloved and despised for it’s aesthetical qualities (or lack thereof).

She’s a teenage girl in a fit of madness, driven to chaos in the midst of an unfair disadvantage. She is the Cheshire Cat, hanging in a state of mischievous taunting. She’s chock full of all the urbanity I adore. She’s gritty and mad all in one. And I live for the mad ones. The ones who demand you notice the world around you. Demand not to be ignored. Make you feel hatred and love in the very same instant.

She is auditory above all other things. She is sight and smell. This, for me, is Naples and this city is not for the faint of heart.

We pull into the station as Vesuvius sits in the background, a grim admonition of Mothers Nature’s dominance on the human condition. I am thrown into the madness. Pigeons fly at my head. Loose pieces of paper tangle between my ankles as they flurry down the boulevard. And just as I consult my google map, headed in the direction of my hotel, I hear the Cheshire Cat state to Alice, “It really doesn’t matter which way you go!”

I wait for street lights that never change. I narrowly miss screeching motorino as their engines purr and grumble pass. Paying no attention to crosswalks or even the sidewalk for that matter. I am forced to dart from here to there. I watch groups of men sitting in front of dingy cafes, pulled together at little tables in erratic conversation that all but halt when I pass by. It is a safe sense of danger.

The noise can be overwhelming and even for me settles deep within my nervous system. Everyone here talks at a higher decibel than in any other city I’ve ever been in. There are no rules and if there are, nobody in their right mind thinks to abide by them.

I dangle my feet through the railing of my third floor balcony. The city lights flicker on as the city embraces the night. I’ve slept through my first few hours after my arrival, unable to confront my troubles. I think to myself, perhaps Naples was not the city to try and rebalance my emotional state. The streets, still alive are elegant as the sun no longer exposes every flaw. What is left is a romantic city under the cast of glowing yellow lamps. I eventually pull my legs back through the railing, giving myself a pep talk to get properly dressed and go out into the night. I know I will greet things here that I thought were only inventions of the imagination.

On my second day, I wander down back alleys. I observe people and their interactions as I perch myself upon a marble staircase. I try to make sense of it all. There is none. And that may be the most beautiful thing about it.

The Napolitani are a religious but suspicious people. You almost suspect the city froze during the inception of Christianity from its pagan roots. Cornicello, the red horn amulet worn as protection from the evil eye swing in the shops next to statues of the Madonna. Youth crawl the streets everywhere. Even though Italy is experiencing the lowest birthrates since the inception of the modern Italian State, Naples seems to be in no lack of bambini. Babies and toddlers are kissed, held, adored and greet my travel companion, Weezer with enthusiasm. Teenage girls weave their way through traffic upon their scooters, chatting with their friends on nearby vehicles in the shortest shorts and tightest tank tops with seemingly no regard for body consciousness – considered inappropriate in other regions of the world but embraced here in sweltering Napoli. The boys travel in packs of 3-10, kicking a ball around in the shade. At one point I observe a group of adolescent boys, caught in a game of rough-housing that ends with a loud slap across an unsuspecting boy’s chubby face. I can’t help but smother a giggle. The state of shock and natural consequence of being the groups most mischievous player has been brought down upon him. The boy holds his face with one hand as he wildly gestures with the other to express his anger. Napolitani have no sense of boundaries and personal space is as atmospheric as air. They are like packs of wolves, vultures in the kind of way you viciously admire.

Somewhere along my way, I find myself striding down a main artery through the city – narrow, hectic and at the complete center of the madness. I realize I’ve been here before or I at least think I have. I find myself caught up in a spectacle developing nearby when a hand grabs my arm and pulls me to face him. For a split second I think I am going to have to slap someone myself. I cannot stand to be touched by strangers on the street. Often times it is to gawk at my tattoos, inquire about who I am or where I am from but I am greeted with the worn face of a man I feel I had met in another lifetime somewhere. As my eyes dart to the vibrant granita cart behind him, I remember. Carmine is the granita vendor and we met briefly on a trip I took to Naples a few years ago. I had ordered a few granitas from him for myself and my friends during a scorching July weekend and while he prepared them, we began a conversation that lasted through my entire lemon treat. It was a lasting interaction but one I had forgotten until that moment.

Carmine said to me in his broken Napolitano English, “Your hair is now the color of strawberries!” I genuinely smiled and felt a bit off in a favorable kind of way – one of the driving forces behind my perpetual runaway syndrome is the complete autonomy of it. Carmine and I spent the next ten minutes speaking about the what’s and where’s of my life, I asked of his and then, curious as to how a man who stands year round in such a densely populated thoroughfare would remember me. His response was, “Yours has been the kindest face I have seen on these streets in years.”

Naples is the culmination of human capability. It is a testament to success and failure in the same moment. As I lean over the stone wall on the Capodimonte under the late afternoon heat, I take in Vesuvius, the Bay of Naples and the crumbling, decaying city before me. In this moment, I think to myself how lovely the talents of man are. How capable we are. The world is so incredibly beautiful even if others disregard it as so. And I decide that I am not running away from it, but running away to it.

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Refugees at the Front Door

I am quite aware that I have lived a very privileged existence. I am American. I am middle class. I am white. I am educated. I am a woman from a country where equality is still a vast struggle but in no manner reflective to other areas of the world I have seen.

Above all, I am, what I define as, a borderless humanist.

As a golden rule, I always look for ways to be kind during my travels – always searching for ways to help others as I go about my daily routine wherever I may be. I am a bit selfish in that I enjoy, if only for a moment, the connection it brings me with another human whose story is most likely so varied from my own.

For years, I’ve been reminded of the day, when I was in quite a state of sadness myself, I met an old man on the train from San Francisco to Oakland. I had noticed his sniffling and small tears and asked if he was ok. He divulged he was suffering from back pain and his meds were not working that day. I offered what I could. I gave him one of my ear buds, we listened to “Just Like Heaven” by The Cure for the remainder of the train ride and he laughed and waved as I exited the train.

This morning, as I left my flat to take a coffee, I noticed a young man laying under the shade of a car, leaning against the pole in front of my gate. Weezer sniffed cautiously around him as I called for him to follow me. The boy had to be perhaps 15, maybe 16. His face was slightly dirty, his clothes looked to have been worn for days, possibly weeks. I continued along my way down to the piazza. As I returned, I noticed tears streaming down his face as he attempted to conceal them, mixing with the dust that had settled over the days. As I went to unlock my gate, I couldn’t help but turn around and asked him if he was ok. He looked up at me, tears welling behind crystal eyes, a face ridden with complete sorrow. He was so young and so alone.

I walked over and knelt down beside him, asking if he spoke any English. He said yes and I asked what was wrong and what I could do to help. He said he was trying to get down to Sicily where his family was supposed to meet him. I suddenly became acutely aware who this teenager was and who he was supposed to be meeting. Most likely, a family that would never arrive. He mumbled through the rest of his story, how his brother was supposed to meet him in the North, how he never shown up, that he had seen an English newspaper on the train and he feared his family didn’t make it to Southern Italy. He had come into Italy days earlier through the North and had gotten as far as Rome but had no money and didn’t speak the language. “They said this was safer.” My heart broke.

I asked him how much he needed for the ticket to Sicily and his response was so incredibly heartbreaking. “I don’t want your money. I want my family.” I told him I could only help him get to them by giving him the money for the ticket so he could meet them. I pressed a bit more and he finally told me the ticket was €82. I gave him all the money in my wallet so he could travel and eat for the next few days.

He was slow to accept it. He stared for at it for a moment in his hand, hanging his head lower and cried a bit more. I rested my hand upon his arm for a minute while he gathered his composure and he said a simple, “Thank you. I am just scared.” I responded, “Everything is going to be ok” and forced myself to believe it.

Humanity and kindness is so incredibly powerful but yet we waste all of our time trying to fight it.

This encounter made me acutely aware that only two days prior, I happily sat on the train on my way to explore a new city, staying in a beautiful hotel, eating lovely things. What different journeys we have in life.

The Old Shall Inherit… Italy.

Italy is an antiquated country – transactions are mostly dealt with in cash, you are consistently confronted with ancient ruins at every veining turn, decay saturates the landscape as paint peels, concrete crumbles and someone, somewhere, is standing before a piece of art executed centuries, if not millennia, before. Its bureaucracy struggles to adapt, its politics make the same mistakes over and over again, and its society is in a constant tug-of-war between honoring the past and embracing the future.

And, if you observe the local society, you will quickly find that even the people seem to be predominately of an older generation. As my young American friend, living in Rome for a college semester stated recently, “I’ve never seen so many old people in my life!”

Statistics show the Italians come in 10th for life expectancy, with the average individual living until they are 82.2 years old. Compare that to the US which ranks 53rd with the average person living until they are 79. While these 3.2 years seem nominal and 79 appears to be worthy of a “long life”, I’d care to ask someone who has recently lost a loved one what they wouldn’t do for 3.2 more years with that person. I digress.

In Italy, the old patter about the streets, shuffling through corridors, moving slowly over stones they have trailed for decades. The meat shop, the pharmacy, the coffee bar all offer them a sense of home. They move steadily, taking long breaks upon benches in the squares. Often times blocking a space built for two people across the sidewalk as you attempt to pass, hopefully, gracefully around them. They glance about at seemingly nothing and I presume, to them, everything. Italy is their world. Italy is their home. Any casual observer will notice the amount of older people coursing through the country.

Those who take a closer look will find a very touching cultural normality that is particularly Italian. I’ve taken note of these sightings – small, white and gray haired individuals maneuvering through the Eternal City, covered in muted dresses and suits – a monochromatic testament to the longevity of the country. They carry bags in their hands or slung upon their walkers, hold umbrellas on sunny days, cautious for whatever may come.

The most endearing moments I’ve observed are the younger generations offering an arm to their dearly beloved older relation. Italians shows great care for those they love and it is none more apparent than in this multi-generational activity I’ve been honored to witness across the Eternal City. A moment of affection, a gesture of kindness often absent (as I have observed) in other spaces across the globe. While Americans can be lovely and respectful to our elderly, we could do better.

Yesterday, as I awaited my train, a young man in his mid-twenties drew closer to the platform with his grandfather hanging upon his arm – the old man’s feet shuffled, his eyes stayed straight ahead – a destination of only a few feet but probably a marathon away. The young man sat his grandfather down upon a crowded bench and leaned down to whisper something to him. At the conclusion of their short conversation, he gently kissed his cheek and knelt down and took his hand, glancing about for the arriving train. My heart jumped into my throat, my thoughts abandoned any current troubles I may be facing. I could not look away from behind a pair of dark sunglasses. In such a swift moment, observing the care of one generation towards another, my worldview adapted further.

Italy has taught me that those who sacrificed, educated and supported the young from infancy to adulthood are now the ones needing support. The young will inherit the earth, and we are attempting, or should be attempting, to preserve the world in which these people created for us.

Bearing witness to this exchange brought me to think of my own grandfather who I love dearly and think about every day I am in the country of his birth. I am reminded how the actions of one simple individual can define a legacy.

My grandfather Giuseppe (Joe, or Big Joe if you’re familiar) arrived in America a severely poor immigrant. His father, Francesco had been living in San Francisco for ten years prior to his arrival in an attempt to offer his wife and children a bit of stability upon their entrance into the United States. Papa Francesco took up the profession of a shoe shiner, owning a small shop on the Eastern side of San Francisco’s gorgeous bay front. Francesco made a meager living yet always, to a fault, offered what he had to friends and strangers – something I have heard was a source of contention between him and my great-grandmother, Carmella. “Stop giving away our money!” was a phrase often uttered between Francesco and Carmella.

When my grandfather Joe arrived to the US, he suffered from polio, learning English from his nurses during a year long stay in a hospital in the East Bay. He went into the family business shining shoes at the marina for five cents. He then met my grandmother, welcomed four children, the oldest my mother and worked sometimes three jobs at a time to feed, clothe and pay their bills. He is one of the most honored individuals in the Bay Area’s Italian-American society and I am insanely proud to be within his bloodline. He is the best example I know of prosperity and work ethic. Today, he resides in the bourgeoisie Berkeley hills in a four-story grand home with his partner Fran, who after my grandmother’s death, has become a lovely addition to our family.

What these few small encounters have accomplished is to offer insight into my personal world view and the various manner in which a culture honors their heritage.

This morning, as I went to take a coffee before returning to my garden for the day’s work, I saw a man of perhaps 80-years-old, sitting in front of his flat – perched in the casual manner only the Italians can execute. The sun tipped his floppy fisherman’s cap, the breeze fluttered his newspaper and the pencil in his wrinkled hand rattled slightly with his seniority. The man, whom I have come to know as Mimmo, likes to rest under the Lazio sun, greeting those who pass by, striking up a conversation about who he knows, how long he has lived under the shadow of the Vatican wall and his once beloved profession (a lawyer). Before we could get into any of it, I asked his plans for the day. He smiled and said in half English, half Italian (something I am getting slightly used to), “My son and grandson are arriving. We are to go to Puglia for some days. But I know they are trying to trick me!” I asked what they were attempting to conceal from him. He responded, “Before we go they want me to go to the doctor for my knee. They force me.” At this time, Mimmo makes a face of disgust but I am willing to bet, underneath the wrinkled face, twisted into resentment, is the security of knowing that those he once supported, are now supporting him.

As I said my goodbyes and bid well wishes on his travels, Mimmo smiled and then shook his head, “They are very sneaky! They think I am old!”

These Words Are Going to Change You

My mother wanted me to be a writer. I wanted to do nothing of the sort.

I wrote poems as a child. I read novels under the shadowy shield of my covers late into the night. The constant punishment of a somewhat unruly, curiously independent child was the restriction from my books. It was the only thing my parents could take away from me with any sort of reaction. I spent my allowance on books. I rode my bike furiously before curfew to the local library. Even as a young adult, I broke down in tears at an airport terminal when the grave realization hit that I would have to pay €230 in overweight charges due to the amount of books I had purchased abroad. I consumed words, stories, histories as if they were keeping me from starvation.

The death of a force in my life at sixteen propelled me to write my first eulogy. As macabre as that sounds, I’ve been writing them for loved ones ever since. Most recently at the passing of my grandfather where I stood, a bit timidly, before all the people in my life who have raised me, supported me and have loved me since my very first breath.

For me, writers wrote books. I thought the only manner I could be a writer was to write one. A daunting task when employers set deadlines, bank accounts need proper funds and time is dedicated to the people and places surrounding you.

Yet today’s virtual arena gives way to various outlets of prose – content copy, social marketing, B2B sales – an entire world of concise, fluid text is needed. A writer’s platform is no longer constricted between the pages of a novel.

Writing is one part advertising, one part honoring and engaging the human experience. Each is something I am throughly interested in – when coupled together, not only big players but small, grassroots ideas can grow, extending their reach by a mere voice.

In a college English course, we were put to the task of defining the meaning of art. I was honored with a university award for my essay contributing the successful presidential campaign of Barak Obama to contemporary street artist Shepard Fairey’s image of the Presidential nominee executed in a patriotic palette with the slogan “Hope” underneath. I believe this to be the most brilliant marketing campaign I have seen thus far in my lifetime.

It was powerful. It was telling. And however we individually feel about Obama’s presidential reign, I think that we can all remember the evening in 2008 when we sat in our homes (or ran about on the rowdy streets of San Francisco, as I did) across the United States glued to our televisions as images of Fairey’s poster were held up at gatherings across the globe – Beijing, Paris, Mexico City. “Hope” extended the world over. In a lot of ways, this single word and image elected the 44th president of the United States. This single word inspired communities of minorities to do something they have rarely, if ever, done. Vote. And therefore, on that early January morning in 2009, our first African-American leader accepted the challenge.

This seemingly insignificant college assignment spoke volumes to me. Not only did I learn the greater impact words can have, they also, when put in the correct context, can propel millions of people to mobilize. Words have power, and I want power. (In actuality, I really just would like to effortlessly speak every language on the planet, a gaggle of puppies at my feet, free airline tickets for life and a pair of baby pink Chanel sunglasses. But for this post, let’s say I want power.)

Writing for me developed suddenly. With the eulogy at sixteen; a $50 first place cash prize win for a Black History Month poem I wrote at 17, the former Yale professor who tried to push me into the Creative Writing department instead of Humanities. What happened more suddenly is the realization that words can undoubtedly enact social change, cultural curiosity and serve as a way to connect with human beings you will never meet. It is unabashedly exposing. Every word you write comes with a transparency, a vulnerability of immense proportions. And for some of us, it is the only manner in which we allow ourselves this luxury. When people engage with your text you are almost always addressing an abstract audience. For every one of these harrowing yet rewarding reasons, I write.

Today, as projects come before me, as I accept the daunting task of evoking the imagination through text, I can no longer deny that quite possibly, my mother was right.

The Historical Record of Cultural Heritage

5 April, 2016 Rome, Italy

How swiftly the things that define us as a human society can be swept away.

I am an individual with very substantial emotions about material culture. I have stood before a work of seemingly insignificant art and wept, have gotten weak in the knees at the façade of some eminent building and have spent days researching, viewing and applying thought to a single hand on a single piece of sculpture. I am an inquisitive, at times compulsive consumer of culture.

I often walk under arches and upon stones imagining the stories those spaces could tell, the people who touched upon them, the lives who perished under their watch. History is real, history happened. History is not a television show nor is it a fabricated tale (ok, some of the time it truly is).

How do we know these things? Material culture – the physical remnants left behind. What would we know about the ancient Romans without Livy’s prose? What would we know about religious conflict and dedication without the monuments resting upon the Temple Mount? How would we ever know about the theological ideas in the Middle East without Rumi?

Cultural heritage is not only essential to the human condition, it is, and always has been, imperative for our development as a species.

The remaining material culture of centuries past tell an intricate, allegorical chronicle of human society – of our ability to adapt, thrive and perish yet live on within the architecture erected, artwork created or words penned.

We must not remain motionless at the “damnatio memoriae” of their existence.

I am inclined to fight on their behalf, to offer financial assistance where needed and open my mouth when the world wants it shut. We have a lot of groups fighting for humanity (as they should) yet less fighting for our world heritage.

While everyone insists on visiting Italy at least once in their life, they seldom contribute any effort in its preservation. I’ve spoken many times before on its antiquity, and as with all nearly expired things, the past needs our care and assistance.

There is no greater threat to our global culture than to remain complacent to the destruction of such integral elements of our being. If you feel so inclined, please visit any of the following, which I, as Thesis Travel support:

World Monuments Fund

Save Venice

Heritage for Peace (Syria)

Tevereterno

Cultural Heritage Without Borders

A direct, less monetary contribution can be made by visiting your local museum, engaging with the collection, considering it, its importance, its significance, over a few short hours. This will not only expand your worldview but give direct funds to your local community.

And with this, I close in asking you to mobilize yourself. To become a voice for the voiceless.

Travel Well,
LeAnne J. Smith

NB. I have always made it a practice to reduce my fee to an amount my clients contributes to an organization aligned to preserve cultural heritage (globally, not just in Italy). Cultural heritage is so important to me, I often work pro-bono to ensure their legacy due to the generous donations of my clients. Any donation you make to an organization promoting cultural heritage will be applied at 50% of your donation cost to your fees with Thesis Travel. (ie. Your donation of $500 will give you a $250 credit at Thesis).

Home Sweet Rome in Rione dei Prati

Just north of Vatican City lies a wonderland of a somewhat secret society – the neighborhood of Prati (PRAA-TEE) is set aside from the main bustle of Rome’s visitor filled history center. Known officially as Rione dei Prati, the neighborhood, or so I’m told over and over again by its natives, has been a strictly bourgeois area throughout its history with wide avenues (yes, they exist in Italy!) cleaner streets and large, regal stone buildings mostly filled with corporate offices and white-collar residences. Sounds sterile? It’s anything but.

Today while riding the 492 bus into Piazza Cavour, suddenly and prompted by nothing in particular, the feeling of home rested firmly upon my mind. To me it is a somewhat foreign feeling but when it happens, I take note and appreciate it immensely. I only became truly acquainted with the rione last spring when I moved into a garden flat along Viale Vaticano. I made a conscious effort to chose a neighborhood I had never before lived. Prati has provided a vast difference between my former flats in Campo di Fiori, Trastevere and San Giovanni and I hope to articulate why here.

As I wandered about today with a list of new places to walk by, patron or peek into, I decided it was time to share my mental list of favorites.

  1. Via Cola di Rienzo This strada (street) is every shoppers dream – stretching from Piazza del Risorgimento which is located along the walk from St. Peter’s Basilica to the Vatican Museum entrance down to the banks of the Tiber at Ponte Regina Margherita (yes, that Queen from whom we get the name of everyone’s favorite pizza). While not as lux as the designer street of Via del Corso, one can find anything they want within an hour or two of strolling. Including a few of the places listed below.
  2. Castroni I spend a lot of time in this historical “drugstore”. With its flagship store located on Via Cola di Rienzo, 196/198 Castroni is in actuality a world market filled to the brim with some of the best grocery products from across the globe. At every turn a shopper can indulge in coffees, candies, teas, cookies, pastas, liquors, and sauces from countries such as Italy, the US, Germany, Iran, Japan, Thailand, Ethiopia and India (to name a few). I stop by Castroni at least once a week to take a coffee (their coffee bar is truly a local experience as tourists seem be memorized by the products) and to purchase hummus from Israel, tea from England, pasta and sundried tomatoes from Italy, and ironically, hot sauce from the States. This store and the twelve others speckled across Rome are a must see, must experience spot in Italy.
  3. Piazza Cavour, what’s my life for? once sang a great, great man. Although Piazza Cavour is not conventually a favorite of everyone, I appreciate this massive piazza for what it is – a central hub of activity for Prati. Cluttered with bus stops, cinemas, cafes, restaurants and the central statue of Camillo Benso, the Count of Cavour overseeing the controlled chaos. During the day, the facade is littered with lawyers in their streamlined suits while at night the nearby wine bars and restaurants glow with warm invitations.
  4. Pizzarium I know, you have probably read a list or two, maybe even seen a TV show or five about this pizza a taglio (pizza by the slice) joint created by famed Roman, Gabriele Bonci. Even though I frequent this place at least once a week, I have only recently become acknowledged as a local by the young, sweet and downright classically beautiful staff at Pizzarium. Although it is obviously swarming with in-the-know, willing to travel outside the center tourists, it’s the one place you will never care you’re an outsider. From my personal favorite carcofi e patate (artichoke and potato) pizza to what I hear is delectably unforgettable – every other concoction including purple cauliflower and sausage or radish and gorgonzola. It’s so good that I feel ashamed for saying the artichoke is my favorite – the pizza rossa (red sauce only) is also my favorite. My advice is to not get overwhelmed by what lies before you nor the ticketed numbers or crowd. Take your time, order what you want and even if you feel like you missed something, you’ll be ecstatically surprised by every bite.
  5. Coin Excelsior I am an avid fan of fancy things. While I don’t tend to be a shopper by nature nor find pleasure in wasting valuable income on designer threads, I do appreciate looking, smelling and handling pretty things with the occasional purchase. Coin Excelsior (in lieu of just Coin, a less high-end version of the store), located on Via Cola di Rienzo, came into my life when I first moved to Rome – in dire pursuit of finding a simple pillow the first time I lived in the city. This store, with its gold rimmed doors and instantaneous scent of perfumed luxury upon entering is worth a look around. Each floor features home goods, beauty and accessories and designer clothes.
  6. Cacio e Pepe Recently a nice Sicilian boy surprised me with a table at this long-standing Roman establishment on Via Giuseppe Avezzana. As the night passed, the wine craft drew emptier and I became acutely aware I was the only native English speaker surrounded by the company of strictly well-dressed, suit-clad Romans (this is, in fact, the bourgeois court district). If you don’t mind struggling at the lack of menu or staff’s inability to speak English, you still will be handsomely rewarded. And of course, it is best to settle on at least one plate of the traditional Roman pasta, cacio e pepe as it is the namesake of this establishment.
  7. Duecentrogradi literally meaning two-hundred degrees (the temperature the sandwich bread is baked at) was not a favorite of mine the first time I went. For some reason, I didn’t even eat. I wandered inside from the chaos of Piazza del Risorgimento and its Vatican crowds, looked at the menu and walked out believing there was something better on the horizon. To this day, I don’t know why I would have thought that – I now have to stop myself from going everyday! Duecentrogradi features a good 30-40 various panini with creative yet delicious combinations. Its small modern location is a bit cramped for sitting and eating but my best advice is to order “portare via” to-go and lounge around the neighborhoods benches and square. Excellent location after a Vatican visit.

I will draw this list to a close at seven but I already have 8-98 listed in my head. Until then.

 

Please, Come Talk to Me.

These past months I’ve heard from multiple friends that they can’t go anywhere without strangers talking to me, “Everyone talks to you! It’s so annoying!” or “Does it bother you that everyone talks to you?”. (Ummm…. no.) This past weekend I spent a good 30 minutes in a deli on the outskirts of the history center engaged in conversation with two in-the-know American tourists. As I stood outside the bathroom door, I heard in a strong New York accent ring across the room, “Secret Society of Vegans? What’s that all about?” in reference to the emblem on the back of my jacket. I chatted with the couple who I came to know as Al and Rachel, two chatterbox (people after my own heart) Americans from New York whose thick file folder of printed off restaurant recommendations I was impressed by. We each had found our way to Volpetti Più, a low-key, highly regarded staple in Italian Rome. Away from the direct history center, on the outskirts of the Testaccio neighborhood, we were the only English speaking players in the game of Saturday lunch, à la Romani-style. Myself and my dining companion huddled in a corner joyfully drinking red wine out of plastic cups, accompanied by an array of cicchetti (small plates) followed by an all day adventure of strolling through beautiful Rome – a typical weekend in Italia.

I walked away after my encounter with the New Yorkers evaluating this “making friends with strangers” characteristic I have come to further enjoy – something I have always seemed to have had but has seen an influx recently. I blame a lifetime of watching my grandfather, a man whose catch phrase is, “So where are you from? – a simple question that often leads into the divulgence of life stories and confessions. I have witnessed him making connections with people all over the world – my favorite was a group of young teenagers on a swiftly moving European train. By the end of the train ride, they all would have joined the Church of Giuseppe. The man is a genius. He breaks down barriers both socially, politically and culturally.

As I continued to think about this over the weekend, sitting down to devout twelve minutes to the useful Ted Talk “10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation” by Celeste Headlee, I drew some conclusions about this noticeable influx in my current life. It seems I have begun to see the fruits of my labor as for the better part of the past year, I consciously wanted to become more approachable. And apparently, this internal desire has adapted into a cross-cultural way of life.

It simply makes me happy to connect with people around the world. It makes me feel human. I believe it makes us kinder, engaged and less selfish. It makes us interested (I truly am) in other facets of life and forces us outside of ourselves for there is nothing more unattractive in a human being that self-centeredness.

So, if you see me sitting on a bus in Thailand, walking through a souq in Morocco or paddling around in a boat in Croatia, please, come talk to me.

Aesthetics of the Local Market

I fell ridiculously in love this week. They say it always happens by chance, when you aren’t really looking, when you least expect it. And thus while wandering through my neighborhood of Prati, I happened across La Capra Rampante – an exquisitely designed and merchandised organic grocer on Porta Castello, residing a mere block from the watchful eye of the Castel Sant’Angelo.

I am ridiculously fond of small artisanal markets and believe they can feature the best of the culture, a love and admiration I share with my sister as we often discuss and text photos of products we come across. We are unabashedly, unapologetically purveyors of quality food products. Our favorite reminiscing subject is a package of stale madeleines we purchased when we were younger in Europe that found their way home to California and were prepared into an unforgettable pudding. She is always on the hunt for new ingredients, new dishes to prepare for her family and I, slightly ashamed to admit not a foodie in the least, am simply enamored by the aesthetics of it all. I look at markets as a symposium of mercantile where, to be amongst the best, a proprietor must pay attention to every detail. I found La Capra Rampante did this famously.

As I quickly wandered through, the grocer’s lighting was soft yet brilliant on the overcast day, seeming to highlight the groupings of regional delicacies. I excitingly took in what lay before me – piles of vibrant fruits and vegetables perfectly placed with as much care for symmetry as asymmetrical objects would allow. Herbs waved their tiny leaves, a fridge of vegan meat substitutes lined the chilled cabinet and a waterfall of cheeses, arranged in heaping piles with little name flags waved adieu. Towards the rear of the shop, rows upon rows of stunning wine bottles – elegant, suave and bourgeoisie provided a foundation for the rest of the symphony.

I moved from shelf to shelf, admiring the labels, the fonts, the colors used – each carefully selected as to project the desired image of the brand. Backing a few feet away, another, almost more essential aspect was observed. The manner in which shop employees merchandised the products, some in neat rows, others in groupings. It was poetic aesthetics of the best kind.

It is often in these moments I reflect upon past shop experiences – a bread shop in Saint-Étienne-au-Mont, a kitchen store in Tokyo, the tagine bazaar in Morocco, a perfume shop here along the Corso in Rome. All filled with items produced for consumption and desire.

It is peculiar that after the few weeks I have spent in here in Italy wandering the chilly streets under the scattered Roman clouds, my first inspiration to post surrounds the makings of a small grocer but I find this inspiration the reason we should travel.

For me, a person who considers themselves born with a very distinct eye for the aesthetics, the exposure to simple design leads to self-understanding. Knowing what you like, observing what forces you to feel deeper emotions about the world around you, can lead to knowing who you are and thus in turn, making falling in love with the right things.

Opening the Door

Last night as I prepared my evening dinner the doorbell at my flat on the peak of Bernal Heights dinged. Weezer gave a happy bark, excited at the possibility of who may be visiting him. I rushed down the stairs, peering through the glass for a brief moment and opened the door to a huge (were talking the size of two NFL players fused together) young man I came to know as Darrel. He began his spiel, which was simply a melody of words I could not truly concentrate on. Thinking about my overcooked pasta, I asked him if he could return tomorrow, that is, if he would be in the area as I wanted to help him but couldn’t face a unsatisfying dinner. He politely agreed and turned away as I shut the door and ran back up the staircase. By the time I arrived to the top, I immediately regretted turning Darrel away. I turned off my dinner, grabbed my debit card and a bunch of cash and returned to the dark street in search of the NFL-esque player. I found him a couple houses down and said, “I have 5 minutes for you now. What are you about?” I was hoping for a cause, for some type of organization to support but quickly found out Darrell was selling magazine subscriptions for the local Boys and Girls Club of America (or some affiliated organization). At first I was disappointed because I wanted to support him but had no need for magazines. I asked him, “Can I just make a donation?” “No,” he said, it would have to be a legit transaction for magazines on the books. We sat down on the doorstep as the clear night of San Francisco swirled around us. We began to talk briefly about his life as he fielded my questions – his 1 year old daughter, how he lived in Oakland and how he had once been to New York to visit a college he couldn’t afford to go to. I settled on an outrageously expensive subscription to Entrepreneur magazine.

As we began to part ways he turned back and said, “Can I just say Ma’am? Thank you for answering the door. You are a tiny white woman and I know its dark and most women won’t open the door, they just crack the door and say ’Not today’ – let alone run after me nor sit down next to me.” I could only smile at him as he reached out and hugged me. He was soft spoken, gentle and I would like to believe in any other settling, kind.

This exchange has left me still, as I prepare for my day ahead, thinking about the perception of fear.

When people learn I work in travel one of the most frequent statements I hear is, “Aren’t you afraid of these places?” (I especially receive this question when people ask where I most want to go in the world which would be Iran, Turkey and Jerusalem). My response tends to be the same. No. I am more afraid not to see the incredible beauty the world has to offer than that someone will hurt me. If I perish at the hands of hatred it is only to be and true wanderlust has no sense of fear.

As people begin to think of their upcoming holidays, many are met with the blinding fear the Paris attacks have brought forth about traveling to Europe. I can only think that we cannot sit in our homes, our safe little cities and watch the world from afar. Now is the time to embrace the human experience. Now is the time to venerate the cultural heritage of foreign lands for there are people out there who may want to wash away their existence.

We all, in some way or another need to open the door to Darrel. To invite the ability to know, if only for a few cold moments perched upon a chilly San Francisco doorstep, another human – no matter how different from us they may be. We need to embrace cultural exchange with those who don’t look like us or those who may not think like us because as Darrel suggested, struggle and the human condition is something we cannot escape.

Travel Well,
LeAnne J. Smith

The Comforts of Foreign Culture

Nowadays, the amount of virtual information we can gather on any particular topic has swollen exponentially. In terms of travel, we no longer have to scour the library for guidebooks and travel literature – we can simply type in “Bangladesh” and scan through thousands of years of art, history and culture.

My preferred web searches always include such topics as historical figures, Italian cities, travel routes and the British singer Morrissey. Which is why in any conversation, at any time, I may reference Isabella Sforza’s contributions during her reign of Ostuni in the 16th century or quote the lyrics, “Let the old dreams die, let the wrong ones go…” when we discuss your breakup.

Today’s web search of “When should you consider yourself fluent in a foreign language?” lead me to an article by Jhumpa Lahiri for the New York Times titled Teach Yourself Italian, Finding a New Voice.

It was not Mrs. Lahairi’s prolonged quest and admirable devotion to master the Italian language that enthralled me and propelled me to continue reading. It was her insights into her move to Rome,

“And there are many other obstacles, small but annoying. We don’t know where to take the recycling, how to buy a subway and bus pass, where the bus stops are. Everything has to be learned from zero. When we ask for help from three Romans, each of the three gives a different answer. I feel unnerved, often crushed. In spite of my great enthusiasm for living in Rome, everything seems impossible, indecipherable, impenetrable.”

I laughed aloud for every conflicting answer to a seemingly straight-forward question I had ever asked an Italian. These are the types of experiences one confronts everywhere when moving abroad – everything is unusual, non-practiced, bizarre and yet, in every ounce of its unexpectedness is why we seek other cultures in the first place. The thrill of learning and adapting into a new society.

Flashbacks to my first year as a resident of the Eternal City surfaced immediately. I was angry and frustrated at everything. I rolled my eyes daily, cried weekly and swore a monthly allegiance to return to America on the next flight. But then, slowly, almost with a timed practicality, before I had any more time to reject the country I had chosen to try and build my life in, the comfort and routine settled in. If you do something long enough, even if it is peculiar and unfamiliar, it becomes your safe place, your cherished environment.

This past Spring when I returned to Italy, I embraced these disturbances. I went with the flow. I waited for buses that never came patiently. I let little old grumpy women cut in line without protest. I stopped trying to fight for the manner in which I was raised, as an American, with different cultural values and ways of being, and took every bewildering moment for what it was worth.

I found myself yearning for those exact things that I swore off in the beginning of my journey all those years ago. I desired the discomfort, the strategy it took to maneuver through Italy with grace and feeling as if I belonged.

This lesson is something I practice and lightly voice when traveling with a new group. Travel isn’t supposed to be 100% comfortable when it comes to embracing “the way they do things” vs “the way we do things”. It’s meant to intellectually challenge. It’s meant to change us. It has to change us. It should take routine things we have done since our childhoods and give us new approaches, new views.

And while at home, in the urban belly of my own culture, I am still not okay with old ladies cutting in line.

The Familiarity of Rituals

19 November 2015, San Francisco, California

Yesterday, feeling particularly discouraged by the consistent media pouring forth from the TV, internet and radio I found myself heading out into the streets of San Francisco with no particular purpose. It is in these instances, I find myself taking to the streets, seeking something new, something perhaps a bit adventurous, something that will remind me to be mobile, to be free, to be a tourist, even if I execute these in my own town.

North Beach has always been a place for me to call home. The streets bear the familiarity of my heritage and part-time existence in Rome – the red, green and white flags, the shopkeepers are old friends – recognizable faces in the bustle of city life. The men sitting outside drinking their espressos, quick to offer a “Buongiorno!” and an admiring glance. I circled around Washington Square, head down, glancing around when needed. Weezer trailed behind as I passed the Italian Athletic Club, bidding good morning to Frankie, as he sorted out the twisted Italian and American flags from their positions over the balcony.

I noted the place where Francis Ford Coppola wrote the Godfather trilogy, the bookstore that helped incite an indecency trial for Ginsberg’s Howl, and quickly glanced over my shoulder to take in the steps of St. Peter and Paul, where Joe DiMaggio did not marry Marilyn Monroe.

I pretended upon my way to not know where I eventually wanted to end up, wandering the streets a bit, pacing myself as I climbed hills, receded down the other side and quickly passed through the outskirts of Chinatown and proceeded to walk into Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral at the intersection of Grant Avenue and California Street.

Built over the year of 1853, a few years after the Gold Rush began to consume the surrounding streets, Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral has continued to be an eclectic feature at the crossroads of many historical and geographical eras in San Francisco history. At one time, with the Gold Rush in full swing, the cathedral was completely surrounded by the infamous brothels and opium dens characteristic of the Barbary Coast at the time. Thus, still today under the central clock hanging from its bell tower declare the words, “Son, Observe the Time and Fly from Evil”. An entertaining reminder of the amount of debauchery and sin committed upon the streets.

As one might assume (and they would be correct) given my heritage, I grew up in a Roman-Catholic family where every Sunday I sat within the confines of a stark white Spanish-style cathedral with sky blue domes cusped by brilliant gold crucifixes. I absolutely dreaded Sundays which brought the longest hour of boredom known to child-kind. I could never sit still, playing with my father’s fingers, twisting them into various positions until he strong handled my two little hands in one of his, and I pouted in the fanciest of the week’s outfits and recited prayers becoming more and more indoctrinated, more and more ingrained. And while it may sound like I am leading up to reveal the repercussions and torment this has thrust upon my adult life, it couldn’t be farther from the truth.

As an adult, with a belief system that is absent of organized religion, I find solace in churches which has absolutely nothing to do with any formal sense of spiritual dedication. Yet this is not to say if I had been raised Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or otherwise I wouldn’t find a shadow-ridden church comforting.

After a few minutes of quiet observance inside the cathedral, I retired back onto the street and sat on the stone steps, feeling compelled to quickly record the following:

“The whispering and hissing of their complex prayers reached out through the otherwise deafening silence and stillness. I assume they have come to make sense of the state of our world today. I only came because of my consistent search for familiarity. I have no prayers to offer here.

The dark mahogany pews gave an all too familiar creak as one faithful departed and another one arrived. More whispering. More prayers. More questions than answers. The smell, an elixir so pungent one can recall its fragrance even in its absence for an entire lifetime, pierced my memories as hundreds of candles flickered through the shadows.

Is it safe to feel at home in a place so indoctrinated with conflict? So staunch on positions of right from wrong?

The church was so dark, my face could only remain absent from any others who resided in the hallows. The only illumination came from the white candles in little glass jars, bouncing around on the stone faces of the various statues of Madonna. Little isolated altars speckled about. Hundreds of tiny prayers, lit by a small flame, a small indulgence paid, in the dark, hallowed church in the belly of San Francisco’s urban streets. The stained glass windows granted no light, only an eerie glow of blues, reds and golds. Saints, holding their scepters and continuous ornate patterns of colors so clear one could only mistake their brilliance for something heavenly.

I followed my eyes across the carpet towards the altar, in such a deep, smooth, velvety texture of red it almost seemed to bleed. It seemed as if it truly belonged in the regal quarters of a King and Queen.

I offered my own sound to the cathedral’s song – the creaking of the pew as I rose to leave, stepping against the eastern wall to take in my last observations. As I crept along the nave towards the door, the sounds of a thousand cities outside became audible once again.”

Pope Francis in Cuba

This past spring, I dropped a postcard in the canary yellow box at the Poste Vaticane. I smirked, thinking of my Grandfather’s smile when he received my greeting from Rome. The front of the postcard displayed a characteristic portrait of Il Papa – Pope Francis, beaming, hand raised in peaceful greeting. On the back, I wrote in tidy penmanship, “Papa Francesco is watching you!”. No signature. Nothing further. I knew it would be well received.

Yet from the recent media coverage we are all in actuality, watching Papa Francesco.

This past week the leader of the Catholic Church arrived in Cuba, a country that, under Fidel Castro’s rule was denied any political or spiritual practice outside of Communism for over thirty years. But with the resignation of Fidel and transfer of power to his brother Raúl in 2008, the current President of Cuba is enjoying an ever-growing relationship between his domain and The Holy See. These changes seem to stem from the Pope’s integral role in the strengthening relations between the United States and Cuba. Raúl went as far to state during a May visit to the Vatican that he might “return to the faith” based on his impressions of Pope Francis.

The Pope’s visit this week coincidentally fused together two very different aspects of my life – when my professional and personal life converged.

I am fortunate enough to work at CCJ part of the year from Rome, where I live quite happily in a garden apartment in the neighborhood of Prati. Prati enjoys its location directly northwest of Vatican City, and as soon as I exit my atrium onto the swiftly moving street of Viale Vaticano, I am greeted by the fortress walls of Il Vaticano. Each day I venture out onto the city streets, I must weave my way around the walls of the world’s smallest independent state, as well as tourists lining up to enter the Vatican Museums. With it’s close proximity, Pope Francis is my neighbor, executing his papal reign only a mere half mile from where I live.

When Cardinal Bergoglio became Pope Francis in March of 2013, I watched a live stream of St. Peter’s Square from my desk at Cross Cultural Journeys. White smoke billowed into the air and the bells chimed, signaling the new leader. I was anxious to see who would walk out onto the balcony, spending the previous week placing unholy bets on a subject I knew little about. I had lived in Rome under Pope Benedict and was in the Eternal City during the Beatification of John Paul II, the Pope who, from the millions of people I witnessed under the shadow of St. Peter’s Basilica during that event, was beloved by all. I was raised Roman-Catholic to Italian parents, attended Catholic school and then as I grew into a forward-thinking adult, found my own belief system – and whatever those may currently be, I still felt optimistic when Francis walked out over that crowd as the new leader of a 1.25 billion strong organization.

Despite whatever religious affiliation you may subscribe to, one cannot help but correlate the immense feeling of hope in the Pope’s journey to Cuba to the hope we have for the United States and Cuba. And it seems in only a two year span, he has been met with success. Pope Francis deemed US/Cuban relations as a model of reconciliation for the world and voiced his wish that Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro persevere in building normal ties between the two countries.

This morning, as I opened my computer to work, I was humbled by a message from one of our travelers who is currently in Cuba at this historic moment. A small group of them ventured into Revolution Square to participate in the greeting of Il Papa.

It was amazing seeing the Pope. It felt like there were no security, no guns or anything. We got less than ten feet away from him. We all started crying. When the Pope mobile went through the crowd, they played this upbeat Cuban music. It was completely different than seeing the pope on CNN in New York or Washington. It was an amazing moment in history. This trip is beyond anything I could have imagined. Well curated. Every day is better than the next.  I want anybody who would like to see Cuba at this time to travel with Cross Cultural Journeys. Peggy Taylor, September 24, 2015

And as I devour the media attention on Papa Francesco’s Cuba/US tour, the messages from our travelers, my grandfather’s excited calls surrounding Il Papa’s first US visit, it feels as if we are all hopefully watching each other.

Travel Well,
LeAnne J. Smith
Creative Director, Cross Cultural Journeys

*Travel to Italy with me! Join my journey Italy: Beyond the Obvious.

The original post on Cross Cultural Journeys “Travel Journal” can be found here.

Cuba: A Travel and Photography Exploration

This morning I awoke and greeted my normal feed full of stories, all carefully curated towards my interests, all competing with catchy headlines for my attention. Where once I used to scour the internet for anything Cuban related – now has multiplied tenfold in the past 8 months. “Obama Loosens Travel Restrictions on Cuba” and  “US and Cuba Open Embassies in Capital Cities” were two big days in my professional life. It has been a sensational year to be involved with taking Americans to the island and it is only getting more difficult yet more rewarding each day as decades-long travel restrictions lift and a renewed interest surrounds the island.

And now, after almost three years at Cross Cultural Journeys, I am finally able to pause my duties as CCJ’s Creative Director to travel to the island on a 8-day journey in November on our ever-popular, sold-out Travel and Photography Exploration with Jeff Davis. (If you missed this one, don’t worry, we have another similar photography journey in March 2016). Thus, I found it appropriate and with almost cosmic-esque timing, this morning’s headline beckoning me was Photography in Cuba: It’s Not Easy by the New York Times.

In my years at CCJ I have become acquainted with a country very foreign to me. While my feet have rested upon soil in many foreign lands, I have yet to experience the island of Cuba. While I know the country inside and out from an observer’s perspective, I understand I will be traveling at a very historic moment in the timeline of US/Cuban relations.

I’ve been asked what I most look forward to during my visit and for the first time in all my wanderlust, I am indecisive. I am eager to make contact with the people, I am eager to interact with a country and its society having been somewhat isolated over the years and I am throughly eager to dispel any assumptions I may carry. For the word “Cuban people” has entered my vision and mind at least ten times a day, everyday for the past few years.

I have been in foreign lands where a small, welcoming look from across a crowded street can change your whole perception of a country, and a seemingly insignificant meeting with a local can alter your entire worldview.

And in all of it, one of the things that attracted me to working at Cross Cultural Journeys in the first place was the people-to-people aspect. We are in the business of creating experiences that will infinitely change a person’s worldview by putting our travelers in contact with people. People who may live in drastically different conditions, and with drastically different social, political and religious beliefs, but are in the end of the same generous mind and the same generous heart.

As I take this journey, I ask anyone with an interest to follow my series “On the Road with CCJ’s Creative Director, LeAnne J. Smith” over these next few months as I prepare, travel and reflect on this momentous trip.

Travel Well,
LeAnne J. Smith
Creative Director, Cross Cultural Journeys

The original post on Cross Cultural Journeys “Travel Journal” can be found here.

Postcard Views

31 May 2015, Rome, Italy

I apologize for the delay in a timely update. The last weeks in Italy proved to be teeming with engagements, yet none of you were ever too far from thought. I have so much to share, too much to say and at times feel silence would be a more proper approach. But I was never one to censor myself…

As a child, my room was covered with posters of travel destinations. I distinctly remember having Neuschwanstein Castle, with its spindly peaks and conic towers to the left of my bed. Westminster Abbey was properly displayed to my right, and somewhere along the pristine white walls of my spacious bedroom was a cityscape of Prague. I had no purpose displaying these pictures, except that I thought they were beautiful. A few months ago, without any sort of prompting, I suddenly recalled this era in my childhood decor.

The Abbey, with its elaborate moldings, lavish use of marble and spectacularly sculptured façade simply made me feel happy. At that age, this was the extent of my emotional capacity. I remember my ecstatic pleasure when I traveled to London at 16. Standing across the street from the Abbey- it was tangible, it existed. The bells rang. I connected image with place and never was the same. Suddenly these portraits, so completely familiar only by sight became reachable. To this day, my most favorite aspect of travel is the engagement of the senses.

Many of you who have selflessly offered flattery by engaging in conversation about Rome have heard me say, “It just smells like home.” Rome is by no means a pleasantly fragrant city. I often hold my breath as ancient smells gather round. It’s dusty. Car exhaust often clogs my air passage but beyond this is a scent undeniably of another world. The very first thing I do when I arrive in the Eternal City is roll down the window of my car service as we travel into the city center and breathe. The cab ride to and from Fiumicino is often plagued with tears of joy or sorrow, but I never stop memorizing the air.

The more time I spend in Rome, the more I am convinced in another time, in another life, I lived here and I walked here. That I loved here and I died here. Everything I do in Rome is done almost habitually. Everything is familiar, close, obtainable in every ounce of its unfamiliarity. I remember streets I have never been down, buildings I have never gazed upon. And for all the sorrow I feel in this life, is equally matched with happiness in a past one.

Travel simply makes us a better version of who we were before. It not only makes us aware of other people and other lives, but also makes us acutely aware of our own senses, and additionally of the people we love, of the people we know. Travel, can make one feel immortal.

This past week, I twice climbed Gianicolo Hill in the western quarter of Rome. At the top of the ancient hill, secluded from the hustle of Rome’s dynamic tourist culture below, is quite essentially the elements of perfection- a child’s carousel spins with bright bulbs running along its circular structure, the perimeter of the grassy park is lined with stark white statues- famous generals in the unification of Italy with their hats displaying long feathers over their ears. The hill seems to be frozen in a perpetual state of springtime, even in the cold winter months. Sunshine filters down through the leaves.

In the central roundabout is an equestrian monument to Giuseppe Garibaldi, one of Italy’s “Fathers of the Fatherland”. Garibaldi is credited with being one of the four who lead the Risorgimento, eventually leading to the unification of Italy circa 1871. There is a sense of civility about the area, one which is reminiscent to America’s own civic foundations. Perched upon his regal horse, the words “Rome o Morte”, Rome or Death, shine faithfully below.

Garibaldi is facing northeast, overlooking the history center. Walking in the direction of his gaze and you reach a low retaining wall, one which I have, on numerous occasions happily dangled my feet over the side towards the cityscape below. I love the view from Gianicolo. It is often left out of guidebooks, yet only a short walk from the medieval neighborhood of Trastevere. The view is picturesque- with Rome’s peppered domes, medieval bell towers and veining city streets. Large areas of cypress trees, the ancient symbol of mourning and loss peek through the distant chaos below. Bells ring, birds chirp and somewhere, an Italian is complaining it’s too beautiful.

I surmise I love this vista because it is so reminicent to those images that surrounded me as a child, images that I, for some reason, had a predisposition to adore.

Roma o Morte,
LeAnne

An Inclusive Journey

11 May 2015, Rome, Italy

Dear Friends and Family,

How swiftly this past week turned from my second into third in Italy. Simply put, I am happy and well, yet suffering the pains of a blooming ancient city. Many have questioned the series of photos I have been sharing via social media and while I would love to offer a simple reply, I would feel contrite in doing so.

This past week, my friend Anna Pihlström came to visit from Sweden. We spent the summer of 2009 together at the AIRC archeological dig and subsequent summers together in the Eternal City thereafter. We both share a love for Rome and photography, so most days we are found wandering the city, cameras strung around our necks, getting lost and visiting as many sites as we can. Museums, villas and the former palaces of aristocratic families are amongst our favorites. As you can see, our taste lean towards a more bourgeois sensibility that also includes expensive sunglasses.

A few years ago, Anna is the one who snapped a photograph of me in a small, private church at the Palazzo Altempts. Some of you may remember the Christmas card I sent- I sat facing away from the camera within the confines of a dimly lit chapel, rows of mahogany pews stretching around me, lights framed the photograph as I sat quietly in front of an ornate altar. After I sent this card, friends and family across the globe reached out. Those who I see but once a decade, yet everyone who travels with me daily in thought. It was at this time I began to realize the ability one has to be inclusive of our experiences with those physically absent. For beauty and culture can be conjured within the imagination through small representations such as a photograph.

This time, upon Anna’s arrival we wasted no time in visiting our favorite palace in Rome, the Doria Pamphilj. Discovered that first summer together by two young archeology students, we both find reverence in the empty halls, the prolific art collection and the attention to every detail the galleria has to offer. Since the 1600’s multiple princely families united through marriage began the assemblage of artwork including Caravaggio, Memling, Titian, Bruegel and my personal favorite, Dürer. The collection is only rivaled by the surrounding architecture, haunting me from the moment I set foot upon its seemingly eternal hallways. There is nothing, short of imagination, this space cannot accomplish. The rich, aromatic air of 400-year-old wood never escapes me.

As I entered the palace, thoughts wandered towards those absent. I wished I could share these moments. I knew there were others, unable to be present, that could only benefit from its beauty. I wanted to be inclusive. I wanted everyone to know such things.

When photographing, for me, facing the camera never feels right. It is one thing to want to say, “I’m here!” but it is another thing to say, “You are here with me”. With your back turned away from what you seemingly want to capture, everything becomes unavailable. Thus, upon reaching one of the most elegant of halls in the Doria, the Hall of Mirrors (yes, inspired by that of Versailles), I handed the camera to Anna. “I am going to walk away and you are going to take a photo”. We continued to do this throughout the few days we had together at various locations throughout the city. I studied the photos. Yes. It was there. It felt right. It looked right. It was inclusive. It was offering those who viewed them to be with me.

I hope those of you who have seen these photographs will appreciate my desire to be inclusive. Over the course of the next few months, I will commit to writing of my experiences in each of the “Inclusive Journey” photograph series to share with you and share them on my new website currently under design.

I am so very grateful for the many, many emails and comments from every one of you. Thank you for remaining interested and engaged in what I, a girl with little offering, am doing.

Sincerely,
LeAnne