When people give reasons for travel, one or two usually float to the surface. To visit family or friends. Seek better weather. Discover new cultures. For love. Or, for some, in order to find themselves. Whatever the reason, we leave our homes, our bags packed, with hope and huge expectations that the rewards will reflect our intentions. But for Franca, who was born in Belgium to Italian parents and immigrated to the U.S. at the age of nine, travel has become less about filling every moment with purpose and more about finding purpose in every moment.
“Good morning,” said the little prince.
“Good morning,” said the salesclerk. This was a salesclerk who sold pills invented to quench thirst. Swallow one a week and you no longer feel any need to drink.
“Why do you sell these pills?”
“They save so much time,” the salesclerk said. “Experts have calculated that you can save fifty-three minutes a week.”
“And what do you do with those fifty-three minutes?”
“Whatever you like.”
“If I had fifty-three minutes to spend as I liked,” the little prince said to himself, “I’d walk very slowly toward a water fountain….”
— The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
“There’s a difference,” she says, “in rushing around ticking off a To-Do list of must-see places versus allowing the moments themselves to fill with purpose naturally. Kind of like the Slow Food movement, which we follow with our bakery, but for travel, where the focus is less on all the many things which are possible and more on the few things which are essential.”
I sat down with her recently to explain what she meant by that.
What do you mean by essential?
I mean doing things and seeing places which bring you more alive, not just fulfill some guidebook’s suggestions, or worse, provide an Instagram-able image. Those things you can only see with your eyes. I'm speaking of the things you see with the heart.
Such as…well, since you used The Little Prince quote, things which can only be seen with the heart. Like relationships. Responsibility. Compassion. A sense of belonging.
What does that mean, a sense of belonging? Do you mean in terms of people, like feeling part of a community, or place, a space you call home?
Both, I guess. I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t. I’ve felt connected to people I love and valued our togetherness, and, obviously, we’ve made a home for ourselves in which I feel comfortable and safe. But is that the same as belonging? I don’t know. I don’t think so. I think life comes at you so fast that we often just find ourself in a place and with others because of less intentional reasons. Because of our birth. Or work. Or economic status. It’s something I’ve struggled with all of my life.
Can you elaborate?
I was raised in Belgium, by my parents, who were not from there but themselves child immigrants from Italy and Sicily. We were poor, living in a poor neighborhood with my extended family, surrounded by other poor Italian family immigrants, many of whom I became close friends with and am still in touch with now. I was tied to them because of our shared histories, our origins and status. So I guess, on some level, I understood back then what it meant to belong, at least in the mind of a child. And although children see things with their heart so much better than adults, I was still learning to know what was essential.
Then, I immigrated myself to the U.S. at the age of nine, where we moved around a lot, never settling in one place for long. Making matters worse, we lived on or outside military bases so my assimilation into this new, American culture was inspired by guard gates and regulations. Not exactly the freedoms you see in American television and film. Thinking of it in that perspective, my youth was more of a travelogue of Places Not to Belong than one of a welcoming, inviting nature.
As a teenager you moved to Italy?
Also, and again with the military. But it was there, in the Veneto region, something inside me began to stir. I can’t put my finger on exactly what it was —the people, the language, the culture. Oddly enough I couldn’t even put a description to it until I graduated college and moved back to America, to the desert southwest. There, I felt drawn to the landscape, its roughness and ruggedness. The sun had always been a friend to me, and I loved how it made my skin darker, how there was plenty of it in Arizona and the air was dry and it seemed to always be daylight. It felt good to be living in that landscape. It felt as though I was meant to be in it.
You’re describing what is a pretty harsh environment in terms of sustaining life.
I know. That’s what draws me to it, I think. The harshness of it all. That kind of landscape— the heat and the sun and the dryness—it’s sideways to everything I’ve ever known or experienced. It feels, at first glance, as if it’s very unwelcoming, but somehow the land nourishes and sustains life. It thrives there, in fact. You just have think differently about what it means to thrive.
This sounds like the baker speaking.
It is. That landscape makes me think of a time when the land was undeveloped, when everyone made everything by hand. I would have been great at that.
Is Sicily a similar landscape?
It is. Very. Dry heat. Breezy. Sunny. Hot.
We wrote in one of our earlier essays, that taking a month to explore the island is like a revolution. How so?
Because nobody does that. Nobody I know of has taken a month off work, or parenting, or anything of that nature, to travel somewhere to do nothing extraordinary, just be there and get a sense of what it might be like to live there.
A month is a very long time.
It is. But it takes that kind of commitment. To find something you feel you are missing takes time. You certainly won’t find it on a To-do list. In addition to teaching the Little Prince to my French students, I also taught Les Misérables, and if there’s one thing Les Mis taught me it’s that revolutions come from a place of dissatisfaction, from this enormous need to want something different, something better. The need didn’t arrive without warning—more of that seeing with the heart business—and it won’t go away without sacrifice. I’m wondering if even a month is long enough.
Speaking long-term, what are your hopes in taking the trip?
My hopes? I don’t know that I have any. Not yet. I will, I’m sure, and maybe that’s my hope. That I will immerse myself in a place and a people and way of life I’ve imagined and felt drawn to. A place I can truly say I belong. But for now, it is enough just to sit in the piazza, speaking with the grocer and wine maker, feeling the sun on my face and skin and breeze in my hair, and eventually stand and walk very slowly toward a water fountain.