On March 12th of this year, I was scheduled to fly to Spain with my wife, best friend, his wife, a television production crew, and 25 travel guests. We were going to lead our guests on a 10-day trek that was to start in Madrid and end in Malaga with Barcelona, Valencia, and Seville— among others— in between. The film crew was to shoot season six of our television program, “Palate to Palette.” The guests had signed up for the guided tour to all of the places I fell in love with on my journey to Spain in 2011.
Though almost all of the people traveling with us on the Spain trip have long since passed the “guest” moniker. They are all friends, today. Most of them would have been on their third trip with us, and for several, it would have been their fifth trip.
Those friends first traveled with us to Tuscany. That is when we first met. Everyone enjoyed that trip so much they asked, “Where are we going next?” So, we took them to Venice, Bologna, and Milan.” At the end of that tour they posed the question again and we took them to Rome, the Amalfi Coast, and Naples. In between all of that, we embarked on a comprehensive tour zigzagging and crisscrossing my home state of Mississippi.
When these trips began, I knew I would have fun turning people on to the people and places I have met on my travels, but I never expected to make such meaningful and long-lasting friendships with the people who joined us. That was such a great bonus. We figured we must be doing something right because these friends kept wanting to pack their bags and sign on to eat and drink their way through these interesting and beautiful locales the way we do it on a locals-only basis.
Spain was not the only tour that we were hosting this year. The itinerary had us leaving Spain at the end of March and heading over to Tuscany where were we would lead three separate groups through that part of the world that we have come to know and love so well. This fall, we were scheduled to travel with three more groups, one to Rome, the Amalfi Coast, and Naples, and the two others to Tuscany.
And then 2020 happened.
Actually, had the whole pandemic thing not happened I would be typing this on a Priano balcony overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea about to lead that first of three groups on a day-long wooden boat excursion to— and around— the island of Capri, winding up with a sunset toast and a dinner on the water. But the pandemic did happen, and we regretfully had to cancel or reschedule all seven of those tours.
Two of the spring Tuscany groups were rescheduled to just after Thanksgiving of this year which, earlier in March, seemed like a safe bet. We were told by some that we could slow the spread in 30 days, and many thought this thing would likely be cleared up by Easter, then Mother’s Day, then summer, then fall. But by May we finally figured that almost everyone was wrong about almost everything to that point and seemingly no one— not even the medical experts— could predict the future of this particular virus and its impact on the world.
It’s not looking good for the two groups we rescheduled for after Thanksgiving, but my fingers are crossed and I’m hanging onto a thread of hope, while developing contingency plans over the next few weeks. There will be Spring 2021 trips to Spain and Tuscany, and Fall 2021 trips to Rome, Amalfi, Naples, and Tuscany and I am excited about getting back to some sense of normalcy as the world hopefully begins to open up in the coming months.
Travelling has been such a large part of my life over these past several years as I have found myself spending three months each year in Italy. Recently I spent some time contemplating these past several years, and the time I have spent overseas, and came to an unforeseen epiphany. European travel offers beautiful architecture, amazing history, and excellent food, but what I may appreciate more than anything is the people.
I have made such close and lasting relationships with the Europeans I have met over the last decade that those relationships seem to trump all of the typical things— buildings, palaces, museums— we originally travelled to Europe to see. It’s during these strange days that I miss my friends the most. I miss Annagloria and Enzo the owners of the villas in which we stay. They were the first Italians we met on our first trip to Tuscany years ago. We have gotten to know their children well. We have hosted them over here.
Many of these friends started out as people we hired to perform a task. But they quickly became close friends. Marina Mengelberg, a Dutch woman who lives in Tuscany, started out as a tour guide for our visits to Siena, but she and her two wonderful children have almost become a part of our family over the past few years.
As it is over here, many times friends introduce us to friends. Through Marina we met Jesse, another Dutch citizen living in Italy. It’s the ladies at the Tuscan bakery that I visit every morning and the brothers-in-law who run the small, refined country inn where we take our guests on the first meal of the first day where two sisters are cooking the food in the kitchen that I find myself thinking about these days.
It’s the loss of visits to my friend Dario Cecchini’s butcher shop and Fabio Picchi’s Teatro del Sale. It’s the pizza in the small restaurant in Tavarnelle. But it’s also the people we have come to know who work in those spots. I miss seeing our friend Paolo run himself ragged trying to serve every table in his restaurant while his mother slowly and methodically cooks all of the food in her tiny little kitchen.
The scenery is world-class in every corner of Italy, but the drivers who have been working with us for years such as Fabio, Gabriele, and Federico make it fun, and even more meaningful. I am ready to see— and spend time with— all of these people again.
It’s not just the people who live over there, it’s the people who travel with us over there. As I stated earlier, some were about to spend their fifth trip with us. We have made lifelong friendships with many of our fellow travelers.
In the end, I think it’s always the people. The restaurant business is not the food business, it’s the people business. The same goes for travel. My grandfather used to say, “A rich man has his first dollar. A truly wealthy man has his first friend.” He also used to say, “You can judge a man’s wealth not by the size of his bank account, but by the depth and breadth of his friendships.” When I first heard those statements as a teenager, I thought it was a pile of bunk. Today, I know he was spot on. I am a wealthy man today— not because I have a bunch of money in the bank (I don’t), but— because I have such deep and meaningful relationships at home and abroad. I am truly blessed.