Last week, I had a dream come true: I got to hear Frances Mayes, author of Under the Tuscan Sun and a dozen other books about Italy, speak about her new book, See You in the Piazza.

Years ago, before I’d ever been to Italy, she made me fall in love with it, as well as with the idea of living in another country. Her tales of renovating a crumbling villa, while romantic, didn’t inspire me to do the same! Too much work! But the idea of immersing myself in a tiny town somewhere, of learning the culture and language, now, that was something I could get behind.

She read excerpts from her new book, which is a sort of travelogue of her visits to tiny, less touristy towns. I’ll review it when I’m finished.

But she also talked about her travels, and about how she travels.

Finding the Key

unlock the door

One thing that stuck with me was what Frances Mayes said about finding the key to unlock a place. It might be an author from the town she’s visiting. A regional dish. A bread that’s been baked the same way—in the same community oven—for centuries. It’s that key that helps her understand a place.

She loves reflecting on how that key has shaped the people who live there. Using the example of this bread that’s been baked the same way for eons, she wondered: how does that color the way people live? How does it make them who they are?

I like the idea of having a focus when I travel. I’ve started to do it a little, but she’s inspired me to do it more.

So this summer, I’m going to Greece (Santorini, Athens) and Croatia (Split). I’m going to think about what the keys are that I want to use to unlock the places I visit.

I’ve been interested in Greek mythology, so that could be one. What role does mythology play now, thousands of years after Athena and Poseidon fought over Athens? Are these just myths, stories people tell children, or are they more like a religion? Or are they just mere assets to attract tourists and sell cheap plastic dolls of the gods and goddesses?

I’ll report back.

Croatia may take some work. I’ve been putting all my energy into researching Greece (and learning a little Greek!), so I need to wander down this path as well. I’ll be staying in a house with 25 people, so it may be harder to focus on a key. But that’s okay.

As always, Frances Mayes got me thinking about traveling creatively. She has a gift for slowing down the moment while traveling and putting her reader exactly in the spot she was.