Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Before I begin a string of posts about all things Tuscan and Umbrian, I have to enthuse right this minute about a wonderfully inspiring book I've just discovered: How to Be An Explorer of the World by Keri Smith (Perigee, 2008). "At any given moment," Smith writes, "no matter where you are, there are hundreds of things around you that are interesting and worth documenting." This is truly a book for anyone of any age who likes to travel or dreams about travel! It's also perfect for anyone who likes art, and indeed the subtitle of the book is 'Portable Art Life Museum' with a strike mark through the word Art, which I think Smith did because she didn't want people to think this was just an art book. And it's not, it really is a life book. I think it's also great for teachers and parents. But mostly, it's great for just about everyone.

There are 13 steps on Smith's list of How to Be an Explorer of the World. Of these, the ones that immediately caught my attention and made me think Smith was a Collected Traveler soulmate are: Always be looking (notice the ground beneath your feet), Everything is interesting (look closer), Observe for long durations (and short ones), Notice the stories going on around you, and Document your findings (field notes) in a variety of ways.

As readers of my books know, slowing down and really looking is one of my basic tenets of travel, and Smith's book oozes with this idea. I once had to do a project in an Earth Science class many years ago where I had to count every single blade of grass, every pebble or stone, every insect, every leaf, every everything that was inside a one-square-foot wooden frame placed on the ground. It was an eye-opening project -- just think about how many blades of grass are in a one-foot square! -- so I love when Smith asks readers to "write down (or document) fifty things about one of the following: a trip to the library, a trip to the grocery store, a walk in your neighborhood." This is good preparation for a trip anywhere in the world, including somewhere in Tuscany or Umbria: take a seat at a table in a piazza and just look and listen. You may be amazed at what fifty things you observe, and later remember vividly!

"Life is a scavenger hunt," Smith opines, and just a few objects we can collect that help us to document a place are fabric, sugar packages, really tiny things, things on the sidewalk, colors, sticks, seed pods, thread, stickers, maps, fruit stickers, grasses, leaves, spices, and shells. Much as I love a gift from the Farmacia Santa Maria di Novella in Florence ( /, or a bottle of wine from Lungarotti ( in Umbria, some of my most favorite ricordi (souvenirs) are of the kind listed above. As I type this, I'm looking at one of them, a large, flat, smooth stone from the (rocky) beach at Nice, on the Cote d'Azur. When I look at it, I remember fondly the two weeks I spent there during spring break of 1979, when I lived in Paris. If you arrange the stones just so, you can spread out a towel on top and lie in relative comfort for the entire day, which is what I did nearly everyday with two women I met from the University of Illinois. After the first week, we made a list of the "regulars" at our section of the beach, which included some volleyball players, a drunk, and a scruffy dog (I still have the list). Recently, I became obsessed with recording the colors of what I was looking at on my travels, so I bought a package of watercolor pencils -- these are just like regular colored pencils but when you add a little drop of water, you can create many more shades -- and I try to approximate as best I can the colors around me. When I do this, I notice a lot of things I feel I would otherwise miss, and now that I have Smith's book I'm going to start collecting stuff, too (she provides a page in the book for you to glue in an envelope or plastic bag, which you use to put your findings in). "Expect the unexpected (and you will find it)" as she wisely notes.

As this is a time of year when many of us are thinking about gifts, How to Be an Explorer of the World would make a fine one (and I recommend getting a copy for yourself, too!).