ROME— We are back in this city by popular demand. We are not a film project or a theatre production, but we are actually here by popular demand, literally. My friend collaborator and business partner, Wyatt Waters and I began leading tours through Tuscany several years ago. But before we were even finished exploring the Tuscan countryside on the first tour with the first group, our guests started asking, “Where are we going next?” So, we told them that we think Venice is the most unique city in the world, Bologna is the food capital of Italy, and Milan is magical at Christmastime, and so we took more groups to Venice, Bologna, and Milan. Then our guests asked, “Where are we going next?” And that is why I am typing this column from a hotel room Rome the day before our guests arrive.
Over the past three years, Waters and I have spent over two months each year in Italy leading tours. This year won’t be any different. We never set out to lead tour groups in this country. We just wanted to write a book about Italian food, art, culture, and scenery.
In 2011, Waters and I spent 10 weeks scouring Italy from the tip of Sicily to the Alps. While doing the promotional tour and book signings for the resulting book, “An Italian Palate,” people started asking us to take them to Italy. We’d hear statements such as, “I’d love to go to those places I read about in your column,” or “I wish you would take us to that place you painted,” and, “We’d love to meet those people you wrote about.”
At first, we thought it was just people making small-talk and conversation while we signed their books. But we kept hearing the same requests, over and over. Finally, I called Waters and said, “I think people want us to take them to Italy. Do you want to do this?” He said, “Sure.” I made one Facebook post and we filled a group of 25 that afternoon. There ended up being a waiting list, so we decided to take two groups. And then the waiting list grew a waiting list. And that’s what brings us to Rome today.
We are 24 hours away from leading two groups of 25 people each through Rome, the Amalfi Coast, and Naples. The cool thing about these two upcoming tours is that almost all of them have travelled with us before. They were strangers a couple of years ago. Now they are friends with each other and they are our good friends. Some have been on two tours with us. Those who joined us on our Magical Mississippi Tour have been on three of our tours and are just days away from their fourth tour. Not only is it fun to travel with friends— old and new— it lets us know that we must be doing something right, to have people fly halfway around the globe to share our love and appreciation for Italian food, art, and culture.
The older I get the more I realize how important relationships are to the quality of one’s life. There is a time in my life when I thought it was all about stuff. I was mostly into worldly and material things. I was also young and stupid. Today I value the relational over the material. It took a while for me to get my priorities straight, but the key is that I finally came around. These tours had a lot to do with that personal growth and development.
It all started back in 2011 when I took my wife, 14-year old daughter, and 10-year old son to 72 cities in 17 countries on two continents (the same year I worked on the Italian book with Waters). No matter what I accomplish in the years that I have left, nothing will surpass the impact that six months had on my family and me. It is the best thing I have ever done, or ever will do. It gave me and my family an entirely different world view. It also brought us closer together as a family, and created a wanderlust in my two children, of which I am very proud.
That long trip served to bring our family together, but these tours have probably been the impetus in leading me away from the material and towards the relational. I have always valued friendships. I am blessed to have had a close group of friends that have remained near and dear all of my life. I have always enjoyed making new friends, but there is something different about making friendships while travelling. People almost develop a bunker mentality when travelling together. It has been a fun thing to witness, but it has been an even greater thing experiencing it personally.
When we started these tours, we never set out to make new friends or to bring people together, but that has been the result. Our guests have made such good friendships with each other while travelling that they have stayed in touch and even held reunions and get-togethers. I love that.
We will also be filming season five of our television show “Palate to Palette” over the next several weeks. This season will air next spring and cover Rome, the Amalfi Coast, and Naples with a lot of great stops in between.
Travelling with friends and family is one of life’s greatest pleasures. I hate that it took me 50 years to figure that out. But I am grateful that I have a few decades left to wander and discover. There are so many places to see and so many new friends to meet.