Wednesday, May 8, 2024

Robert St. John: Travel Connections

QUEENS, NEW YORK— After 62 years, and millions of miles logged, I have learned that travel is about one thing— connection.

I am jet-lagged, tired from lack of sleep and sitting up in bed in a dark room in an airport hotel in New York after a flight cancellation wrecked my homeward bound itinerary. I’ve been gone eight weeks, and I was hoping to be seated at table 19 in the Midtowner eating a small stack of pancakes with cane syrup, bacon, and spicy hash browns at this moment.

The travel gods had other ideas.

Travel delays offer the best opportunities to practice acceptance, as one is at the total mercy of the airline. Some get mad and scream at the desk staff. But it’s not their fault. I’ve found that accepting the situation and being overly nice to the airline’s desk staff will get you much further with even more benefits. Delta took care of us in all the best ways, considering the situation.

Back to the connection thing. All travel is better when one connects. But foreign travel— to be the most enjoyable and satisfying— demands connection.

One of the key components first-time travelers to Europe overlook is hiring a guide. No matter how much one studies a place before leaving, it won’t scratch the surface of what certified guides know about the area, its museums, galleries, cathedrals, and history.

In Italy, certified guides go through rigorous training. My friend, Marina Mengelberg, studied one full year just to be a certified guide in Florence. When the time came to for her to be certified she sat in front of a seven-person panel, with an audience seated behind them, answering detailed and in-depth questions such as, “In the Uffizi Gallery, on the second floor, third room, second painting on the left, who was that artist's mother, and where was she born?” The depth of knowledge certified guides can pass along is irreplaceable when touring.

Though all guides aren't alike. There must be connection. Most of them can spew facts, but if you aren’t being guided by someone with charm, personality, and the ability to connect, then you are basically walking around with someone blandly citing Wikipedia facts from memory. Guides such as Mengelberg are charming, engaging, and have the innate ability to connect with their guests.

The same goes for tour directors and experience designers. Mengelberg introduced me to her friend Jesse Marinus, who helps me book trips outside of the Tuscan region. We have coordinated and collaborated on trips through Rome, Amalfi, Naples, and Sicily in Italy. Madrid, Seville, Cordoba, Toledo, Malaga, Valencia, and Barcelona in Spain. Last year I teamed up with both Mengelberg and Marinus and we hosted a group through their homeland of The Netherlands and Belgium. Yesterday Marinus and I finished co-hosting a 10-day sojourn through England and Scotland.

That is where my latest connection occurred.

I connect with the Florida Panhandle area when I go down there on vacation because I draw on childhood memories and good times when I lived in that area for two short stints. But there are areas and regions overseas that— and sometimes almost instantly— have a deeper connection directly into my soul.

Tuscany was that way for me. I felt instantly “at home” the first time I visited there. I connected. That bond has only grown deeper over the years. I spend around two months a year in Tuscany these days. It’s not home, but it certainly feels like a second home. There are other cities and countries I admire and love, but none in which I have a deep Tuscan connection.

Until Scotland.

I love Scotland.

The first time I set foot in Tuscany I felt as if I had been there before. I have always felt as if Tuscany is very similar to the American South. It is an agrarian society, but instead of cotton and soybeans they are growing grapes and olives. The people are friendly, hospitable, and welcoming. They love and appreciate family and they especially love sharing a meal. I have visited a couple of dozen European countries and probably more than 100 cities over the past 13 years. None had made me feel at home as much as Tuscany.

But I had never been to Scotland.

I had visited London a few times and love that city. This most recent visit to London struck me in a different way. I connected. London has caught a lot of flak over the years as not being a great food city. Actually, England, Scotland, and Ireland have been the butt of many food jokes during my lifetime. All I can say is that 2024 London is an amazing restaurant city. World class. We arrived a few days before my guests and— after almost two months of nothing but Spanish and Italian food— I was ready for some international cuisine. I ate the best Chinese meal I’ve ever eaten. Much better than anything I've had in New York or San Francisco (I haven’t visited China yet). We ate at an excellent Japanese restaurant. The Indian food in London is amazing. It's not just boring pub food anymore.

But what of Scotland? We fell in love with the Scottish people, straightaway. They are extremely hospitable, happy, and welcoming. As I checked the may temperatures back home which were in the high 80s and low 90s, we were experiencing days in the low 60s in the evenings in the low 50s. The landscapes were amazing. The inns and manor houses in which we stayed were charming and the service was all next level. The best of the bunch was certainly The Isle of Eriska Hotel.

The England-Scotland group were all veteran RSJ Yonderlust Tours travelers. For some it was their seventh trip with me. At this point, we are all friends traveling together. I think, to a person, everyone connected with Scotland.

On my trips I try to cover all the bases and check all the boxes. We did the typical things, but we did a lot of unique and unusual things and visited places off the beaten path. No matter where we were, and who we met, all the locals were delightful and warm. I connected with Scotland as much as I have with any place on the planet outside of my beloved Mississippi.

I will have to wait a few hours longer to reach home. But in the meantime, I will reflect on the past two months and the experiences shared with over 126 people who entrusted seven or 10 days of their life with me. I am grateful for each of them, for the people who help me create these experiences, for the people back home holding down the fort, and for connecting with the beauty and charm of Scotland. I will return, hopefully often.



1 lb. Lentils

½ gallon Chicken stock

1 TB + 1 tsp Kosher salt

¼ cup Extra virgin olive oil

1 TB Fresh garlic, minced

1 cup Carrot, finely diced

Place dry lentils in a mesh strainer. Rinse under cold water for 2 minutes.

In a 3 quart stock pot over very low heat, combine rinsed lentils, stock and salt. Continue cooking over very low heat, stirring occasionally, until lentils are tender, but not mushy, about 30-45 minutes. Drain and spread out on a baking pan at room temperature. Discard any excess liquid.

In a large skillet, heat the oil over low heat. Add garlic and carrots and cook for 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the cooked lentils and stir frequently just until they are hot, about 3-5 minutes. Serve immediately. Finish each portion with extra virgin olive oil as desired.

Yield: 6-8 servings

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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