Travel and transformation—and what to take with you when you go

A few weeks ago, I was frustrated with a painting I was working on from a photograph of a sunset I saw while traveling in Japan. The sunset was glorious! But my painting!!! About 12 square inches of the canvas was good and the rest was just overpainted and trite. I showed my friend, and she said, “Ummmmmmmm....” I said, “I know! I’m trying SO HARD.” She said, “That’s the point.” 5 foot 3 inches of stuff and nonsense.

I literally painted over the whole thing.

It was so liberating!

I had a major realization: Yes, I traveled to Japan and I was totally inspired and I have all these photographs to prove it and I’ve tasted all that food. But now the food, the images, and the inspiration are etched in me in a unique way. My job—as an artist and a cook— is not to replicate anything but rather to express what’s inside me now as a result of my experiences.

I picked up my brush with a new awareness and started expressing my personal alchemy of my own travel inspirations on the canvas. And the best part? I don’t yet know where that will take me.

Internalizing the experience

This reminds me of time back in 2001 when twelve of us went on a trip with a culinary teacher to Sicily where we cooked with 8 Sicilian grandmothers. That was a defining moment for me. It totally shifted my cooking. It wasn’t about replicating any recipes.  It wasn’t about traditional Sicilian cooking, about mastering Pasta a la Nonna (with eggplant), though we did that, too.  But that wasn’t my takeaway. It was about internalizing the experience—taking the glorious fresh ingredients of Sicilian cuisine and expressing MYSELF through them. Pistachio and mint! How lemon can be so powerful! These became trademarks of my personal culinary style as a chef and author.

I’m continuing to discover how in the kitchen and in my studio I can take what I learn and uniquely express myself.

My next adventure: Umbria!

Last month I traveled to Japan. This month, Italy! The yin and the yang. The calm….to the LARGER than life! I have no idea what inspirations I’ll capture, but I’m excited to find out!

And I’m so curious about how it’s going to manifest itself, to express itself.

I’m travelling to Italy this time to paint with 12 other artists like I previously explored with 12 other cooking students. It will be fascinating to see how it unfolds! And of course, I’ll share with you. :)

The season of travel and travel preparations

Meanwhile, we’re getting into that season of travel, and as I prepare for my trip to Italy I’d like to offer a timely reminder on the food front to fuel your body and your inner explorer the right way.

When traveling, we sometimes get stuck in uncertain food situations. I’m looking at a long flight to Frankfurt, a transfer to Rome, a train trip to a teeny little town in Umbria, then the following day a car to a teeny little monastery on a hill! It’s going to be a while before I sit down at a table, relax, and have a real meal. So I have to think ahead about what I’m going to take that’s going to provide nourishment along the way.

A couple of things I keep in mind when I travel:

  • I don’t want to overtax my digestive system. Traveling is stressful for me. I have to use every tool I have to engage my parasympathetic nervous system. If I don’t, and I’m eating while in a fight or flight mode—getting through security, smushing into a seat, taking off, all the differences in elevation—I don’t do very well. I’ve got to calm down before I eat.

  • My way is small bites and lots of fluid. On long trips, I eschew big solid meals in favor of light streams of nourishment. I carry this leak-proof thermos with me along with a bag each of Holy Basil and Ginger tea. Once through security, I fill the thermos with hot water (Starbucks is more than happy to oblige) and add both tea bags. I don’t gulp, I sip, and get the thermos refilled throughout my journey. Hydration, when you’re at 30,000 feet, is critical. Water is great too, but you’re going to get some calming effects from favorite herbal teas.

  • I pack some really good nibbles. If you have time, make some special things yourself (see some favorites below). What a treat! If not, here are a couple of favorite products & easy-to-pick-up solutions:

  • On a really long flight, I often just take that time to drink fluid. When I flew to Japan, I just drank. I didn’t eat anything until I hit the ground, and it was 10 hours. For me, it was a great opportunity to rest my digestive system, much appreciated since my digestion gets stressed when I travel. This is just another option to consider! Don’t think you absolutely have to eat or eat a lot. As long as you keep yourself hydrated, that’s the biggest, biggest thing.

  • I do some really good breath work when I’m flying. I click on and read a link from my friend Jo Cooper’s Mindful News, like this one, and try some meditation during the flight. Travel—things that are going to put me in a more relaxed state of mind.

Small travel bites

These are some of my favorites. :)

Nuts are little superstars when it comes to improving brain function; cashews are phenomenal at promoting good blood circulation so plenty of oxygen gets to the brain. That’s the nutritional reason to eat cashews, but the taste alone should convince you! This is a nice, quick, easy-to-make snack. Optional: add white raisins after baking. Yum.

Why not go for a very special treat when you travel? This nutrient-dense and delectable confabulation of dates, cherries, and walnuts, smothered in chocolate, rolled in coconut and curry will delight you whether enjoyed at home or on the road.

Here’s a surprising combination. Rosemary tends to be assertive, while pears go mellow; together they make an unbeatable team. This muffin is as Mediterranean as they come. Draw a direct line from Florence to Provence, and this puppy’s flavor lands right in the middle. You can easily swap rosemary, walnuts, and pear for lemon zest and seasonal berries.

To sum up:

When I travel, I’m really excited about exploring new places! And— it still can be stressful, especially if I have a long way to go. I find that the more mindful I can be, the better.

I love the anticipation of what I’ll see and how I might express that in my life when I return. That’s where the mystery is, where the juicy bits are. I like to meditate on this and savor thinking about it, because I’m always surprised! In the kitchen or in life. Who am I going to encounter? Who’s going to say the ONE thing that’s going to shift something in my experience?