Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Robert St. John: Spanish Breakdown

MADRID— The motto of the Boy Scouts of America is to be prepared. That’s all well and good, except I got kicked out of scouting as a Webelo (the stage between Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts). I was never awarded a preparedness merit badge, and don’t even know if there is such a thing. Though I feel as if I have armored up for all potential setbacks while hosting over 40 groups of more than 1,200 people, through lots of European countries over a six-year period. In all those travels, I have never had a transportation problem.

Until yesterday.

Transportation is one of the primary factors in hosting a successful tour group. It is key to be where you need to be at the time you need to be there. It’s just as important to be picked up at the agreed upon spot at the time that was agreed upon. Any deviation in the plan leads to unhappy guests. Transportation is so important it costs almost as much as lodging, sometimes more.

On the second day of this Spring 2024 RSJ Yonderlust Tour through Spain we encountered an issue that I have never had to deal with— the bus carrying my guests from Madrid to Toledo broke down in the middle of the Spanish countryside. Something that had to do with the electronics had failed. Our bus driver, Oscar, seemed competent, and one of our guests is an electrician, though no one could figure out a fix. We were stranded and running late for our lunch reservation.

A travel host is as happy as his least happy guest, and there was growing potential for a busload of unhappy guests. This was uncharted territory for me. I have been blessed with six years of trouble-free transportation on my tours. That’s an impressive feat as I have hosted tours in Venice, Bologna, Milan, Rome, Amalfi, Naples, a majority of the coastline of Sicily, most of Spain, England, France, The Netherlands, Belgium, and almost every inch of Tuscany. Our guests have travelled by van, bus, horse-drawn carriage, tuk tuks, golf carts, boats, planes, four-wheelers (on an active volcano) electric mini bikes, bicycles, and by foot, all without incident. Yesterday, it looked as if my luck had run out.

My boots-on-the-ground travel expert, Jessie Marinus, and I immediately started looking for solutions while keeping a positive attitude with the guests. To their credit, my guests seemed fine. My ego would like to think it’s because all but three of them have traveled with me before— for a few it was their fourth or fifth trip with me— but the group’s overall positive manner and optimistic outlook on life and travel was probably a more accurate explanation.

The first key in these situations is to not look worried or stressed on the outside, no matter how one feels on the inside. The second key is to live in the solution. I’m sure there is an early version of myself that would have panicked and been visibly angry at the situation. Though being blessed with a little clarity and having a small grasp on the concept of acceptance, I chose to acknowledge the situation for what it was and to do my best to fix it as quickly as possible. All attempts to repair the bus were failing. The only answer was to have the transportation company deliver a new bus to us as soon as possible. We were halfway between Madrid and Toledo at an abandoned roundabout with only a small convenience store in sight.

There was a possibility that a bus wouldn’t be available. Then what if there was a bus, but no available driver? How far away would they be? We could be in for a three or four hour wait with nothing to do except to waste away an entire day on this 10-day tour.


The other key in a situation such as this is maintaining constant communication with guests, keeping them in the loop and not guessing as to what is going on. To their credit the entire group remained happy and upbeat. Within an hour a new bus arrived, and we were on our way to Toledo.

There is so much of this travel-hosting gig that is like the restaurant business. In the end, it’s all about hospitality. I tell the leadership team at our restaurants, “Business is problems, and a successful business is problems well handled.” Problems are going to arise. It’s inevitable. The key to happy guests, whether they are sitting in a dining room in Hattiesburg, Mississippi or on a broke down bus in Spain, is to live in the solution.

The restaurant business really isn’t a food business, it’s a people business. The travel business is that, in reverse. It’s about people, but not the team members one works with, it’s all about the people who pay to travel. I have been blessed to host so many wonderful people over the years. When this new leg of my career began, I knew I would enjoy hosting Americans in Europe and turning them on to the people, places, food, art, architecture, and culture I had discovered on my travels. Though I never knew I would make such good and meaningful friendships.

We travel in groups of 25. There is nothing specific about that number other than that is what the two original villas we used in Tuscany could hold. My wife and I aren’t group travel people. Not at all. I have turned down free trips from food suppliers to all sorts of locations because I didn’t want to travel with a group. For some reason these trips don’t seem like group travel. I have never been able to figure out why it doesn’t seem like group travel, but it never has. The guests who travel with me say the same. It’s like a collection of friends who have gotten together in a foreign land to discover and have fun. In the end, I believe it’s the quality of people who join me on these excursions. We almost all become new friends. This group might be the best, yet.

Ultimately, if the Boy Scouts would have had a travel hosting or hospitality merit badge in scouting, I might would have stuck with it.


Minestrone Soup

I created a version of this in the early days of the Purple Parrot Café in the late 1980s. When we opened Tabella, I revised it and it’s a regular menu item.

¼ c. Pure olive oil

1 ½ c. Onion, diced

1 ½ c. Carrot, diced

1 c. Celery, diced

½ c. Garlic, minced

¼ c. Kosher salt

1 tsp Dried basil

1 tsp Dried oregano

½ tsp Dried thyme

2 tsp Fresh ground black pepper

¼ tsp Crushed red pepper

2 ea. Bay leaf

2 TB Balsamic vinegar

½ c. White wine

¼ c. Tomato paste

2 ea. 28 oz. can San Marzano tomatoes, chopped

1 gal. Vegetable Stock

2 c. Zucchini, medium dice

2 c. Yellow squash, medium dice

1 ea 10 oz. package frozen spinach, thawed, drained

2 ea 15 oz. can kidney or cannelloni beans, drained

¼ c. Pesto

1 TB Worcestershire sauce

Heat olive oil in a stockpot over medium-high heat.

Add onions, carrots, celery, salt, peppers, basil, oregano, thyme and bay leaves. Cook for 8-10 minutes, stirring frequently.

Add wine and balsamic vinegar. Continue cooking for 3 minutes.

Add tomato paste and cook 6-8 minutes, stirring constantly, being careful not to let it burn.

Add canned tomatoes and chicken stock. Simmer for 1 hour.

Add zucchini, squash, spinach and kidney beans and cook for 8 minutes.

Remove from heat and stir in pesto and Worcestershire.

Yield: 1 gallon

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Trollfest '09

Trollfest '07 was such a success that Jackson Jambalaya will once again host Trollfest '09. Catch this great event which will leave NE Jackson & Fondren in flames. Othor Cain and his band, The Black Power Structure headline the night while Sonjay Poontang returns for an encore performance. Former Frank Melton bodyguard Marcus Wright makes his premier appearance at Trollfest singing "I'm a Sweet Transvestite" from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Kamikaze will sing his new hit, “How I sold out to da Man.” Robbie Bell again performs: “Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be Bells” and “Any friend of Ed Peters is a friend of mine”. After the show, Ms. Bell will autograph copies of her mug shot photos. In a salute to “Dancing with the Stars”, Ms. Bell and Hinds County District Attorney Robert Smith will dance the Wango Tango.

Wrestling returns, except this time it will be a Battle Royal with Othor Cain, Ben Allen, Kim Wade, Haley Fisackerly, Alan Lange, and “Big Cat” Donna Ladd all in the ring at the same time. The Battle Royal will be in a steel cage, no time limit, no referee, and the losers must leave town. Marshand Crisler will be the honorary referee (as it gives him a title without actually having to do anything).

Meet KIM Waaaaaade at the Entergy Tent. For five pesos, Kim will sell you a chance to win a deed to a crack house on Ridgeway Street stuffed in the Howard Industries pinata. Don't worry if the pinata is beaten to shreds, as Mr. Wade has Jose, Emmanuel, and Carlos, all illegal immigrants, available as replacements for the it. Upon leaving the Entergy tent, fig leaves will be available in case Entergy literally takes everything you have as part of its Trollfest ticket price adjustment charge.

Donna Ladd of The Jackson Free Press will give several classes on learning how to write. Smearing, writing without factchecking, and reporting only one side of a story will be covered. A donation to pay their taxes will be accepted and she will be signing copies of their former federal tax liens. Ms. Ladd will give a dramatic reading of her two award-winning essays (They received The Jackson Free Press "Best Of" awards.) "Why everything is always about me" and "Why I cover murders better than anyone else in Jackson".

In the spirit of helping those who are less fortunate, Trollfest '09 adopts a cause for which a portion of the proceeds and donations will be donated: Keeping Frank Melton in his home. The “Keep Frank Melton From Being Homeless” booth will sell chances for five dollars to pin the tail on the jackass. John Reeves has graciously volunteered to be the jackass for this honorable excursion into saving Frank's ass. What's an ass between two friends after all? If Mr. Reeves is unable to um, perform, Speaker Billy McCoy has also volunteered as when the word “jackass” was mentioned he immediately ran as fast as he could to sign up.

In order to help clean up the legal profession, Adam Kilgore of the Mississippi Bar will be giving away free, round-trip plane tickets to the North Pole where they keep their bar complaint forms (which are NOT available online). If you don't want to go to the North Pole, you can enjoy Brant Brantley's (of the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance) free guided tours of the quicksand field over by High Street where all complaints against judges disappear. If for some reason you are unable to control yourself, never fear; Judge Houston Patton will operate his jail where no lawyers are needed or allowed as you just sit there for minutes... hours.... months...years until he decides he is tired of you sitting in his jail. Do not think Judge Patton is a bad judge however as he plans to serve free Mad Dog 20/20 to all inmates.

Trollfest '09 is a pet-friendly event as well. Feel free to bring your dog with you and do not worry if your pet gets hungry, as employees of the Jackson Zoo will be on hand to provide some of their animals as food when it gets to be feeding time for your little loved one.

Relax at the Fox News Tent. Since there are only three blonde reporters in Jackson (being blonde is a requirement for working at Fox News), Megan and Kathryn from WAPT and Wendy from WLBT will be on loan to Fox. To gain admittance to the VIP section, bring either your Republican Party ID card or a Rebel Flag. Bringing both and a torn-up Obama yard sign will entitle you to free drinks served by Megan, Wendy, and Kathryn. Get your tickets now. Since this is an event for trolls, no ID is required. Just bring the hate. Bring the family, Trollfest '09 is for EVERYONE!!!

This is definitely a Beaver production.

Note: Security provided by INS.

Trollfest '07

Jackson Jambalaya is the home of Trollfest '07. Catch this great event which promises to leave NE Jackson & Fondren in flames. Sonjay Poontang and his band headline the night with a special steel cage, no time limit "loser must leave town" bout between Alan Lange and "Big Cat"Donna Ladd following afterwards. Kamikaze will perform his new song F*** Bush, he's still a _____. Did I mention there was no referee? Dr. Heddy Matthias and Lori Gregory will face off in the undercard dueling with dangling participles and other um, devices. Robbie Bell will perform Her two latest songs: My Best Friends are in the Media and Mama's, Don't Let Your Babies Grow up to be George Bell. Sid Salter of The Clarion-Ledger will host "Pin the Tail on the Trial Lawyer", sponsored by State Farm.

There will be a hugging booth where in exchange for your young son, Frank Melton will give you a loooong hug. Trollfest will have a dunking booth where Muhammed the terrorist will curse you to Allah as you try to hit a target that will drop him into a vat of pig grease. However, in the true spirit of Separate But Equal, Don Imus and someone from NE Jackson will also sit in the dunking booth for an equal amount of time. Tom Head will give a reading for two hours on why he can't figure out who the hell he is. Cliff Cargill will give lessons with his .80 caliber desert eagle, using Frank Melton photos as targets. Tackleberry will be on hand for an autograph session. KIM Waaaaaade will be passing out free titles and deeds to crackhouses formerly owned by The Wood Street Players.

If you get tired come relax at the Fox News Tent. To gain admittance to the VIP section, bring either your Republican Party ID card or a Rebel Flag. Bringing both will entitle you to free drinks.Get your tickets now. Since this is an event for trolls, no ID is required, just bring the hate. Bring the family, Trollfest '07 is for EVERYONE!!!

This is definitely a Beaver production.

Note: Security provided by INS