In San Francisco, savoring a slice of heaven on France’s Cote d’Azur


September 20, 2011 — I’m sitting on the sun-washed terrace of La Terrasse restaurant in San Francisco‘s gorgeous green Presidio. It’s a spectacular Indian summer day, with the rays warming my bones and the bay sparkling in the distance under a cerulean sky. All around me, California Mission-style buildings – pale yellow walls, curving arches, terra-cotta roof tiles – shine.

I’ve been eating escargots and poulet roti avec pommes frites, and sipping a crisp Loire Valley Sancerre, celebrating because in a week I’ll be in la belle France, exploring the regions of Burgundy and Champagne. Moments ago I was poring over the itinerary, giddy at the prospect of traveling once again in the country that changed my life decades ago. Suddenly this combination – the frisson of anticipation, the dejeuner francais, and the sun, roof tiles and glinting waters beyond — concocted a terraced time machine-magic, and I was transported to a sunny scene 18 summers before, and a time-stopping, life-enlarging afternoon at the singular – and to my mind, sacred – restaurant called La Colombe d’Or, in St.-Paul-de-Vence, on France‘s Cote d’Azur….

I am ensconced under a white parasol at a red bouquet-brightened table, looking out on a somnolent scene of green hills and straw-colored houses with terra-cotta roofs.

I have just finished a plate of green melon and jambon de Parme, and now the waiter has placed before me with a flourish a platter of grilled sea bream, known locally as daurade.

Around me is a symphony of sounds: the clink of silverware on china, the splash of wine into glasses, the mellifluous laughter and multilingual chatter of diners in summery clothes.

We are all caught up in a buoyant bubble of bonte and bonhomie — a celebration of life’s bounty and of our own good fortune to be sharing it on this sun-dappled summer terrace in the middle of one of the most blessed places on Earth.

Little slices of lemon float in the pitcher of water on my table, and as I take another sip of wine and contemplate the still life — “”Daurade with green beans and rice” — before me, I feel a little like floating, too.

To my left is a vibrant Leger mural, wrought into a section of the terrace’s streetside wall. And straight ahead are the rustic interior rooms of this celebrated hotel-restaurant, where I wandered a half hour ago in search of a restroom and instead found an astonishment of modern masterpieces — canvases by Modigliani, Bonnard, Dufy, Utrillo, Chagall, Picasso, Braque, Matisse and Miro, among others, all given by the artists when they were still struggling unknowns to the generous and perspicacious owner, Paul Roux, in lieu of payment.

This place is an enchanted little world, I think — reluctant to take fork to fish, reluctant even to move, wanting to hold and savor this moment forever.

Awaiting me, I know, is a medieval meander through St.-Paul; an espresso at the Cafe de la Place, where I will watch local gentlemen enact their afternoon rite of boules; and then the piney Fondation Maeght, with its incomparable open-air display of modern art.

But for now the world is wondrously reduced to this: the sunlight catching in the canopy of branches above and blessing the hills beyond, the murmuring music of the diners behind me, the perfume of the flowers mingling with the scents of the chef’s seasonings, the exuberant atmosphere of artwork all around, the cobbled stones beneath me, the fish and bread before me, the wine as red as the flowers, the tablecloth as white as the parasol; an ineffable moment of ease and artfulness, a soul-fulfilling scene of life lived to the full — the whole afternoon floating like a lemon in a pitcher of Evian, a little slice of heaven on the Cote d’Azur.

[flickr image via Wolfgang Staudt]

Top tips for TBEX and other writers’ conferences: What I’ve learned from 20 years of success stories at Book Passage

When Elaine Petrocelli conceived the idea for the first Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference 20 years ago, she didn’t know what she was getting into. “All I really knew was that I loved great travel writing and photography, and I thought it would be fascinating to bring the best writers and photographers together for a few days to talk with aspiring writers and photographers about what they do and how they do it,” says the co-owner of Book Passage bookstore in Corte Madera, California, where the conference is held for four days each August. To help realize her dream, Petrocelli contacted the then travel editor at the San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle – who, as luck would have it, was me — and I contacted legendary travel writer Jan Morris, who agreed to be the first guest of honor, and the Book Passage conference was born.

That was 20 summers ago. We certainly didn’t imagine then that two decades later conference alumni would have published hundreds of articles and photographs in national magazines and newspapers, and dozens of books that directly resulted from contacts made and lessons learned at the conference. We didn’t think that some alumni would be so successful that they would return in future years as members of the conference faculty. And we didn’t dream that we would be celebrating in 2011 with the most ambitious Book Passage Travel, Food and Photography Conference yet.

We’ve learned a lot over the past 20 years and the conference has evolved to embrace those lessons. We’ve added food writing and photography to the menu and focused more and more on writing for the web, blogging and self-publishing. We’ve included in-the-field workshops and one-on-one evaluations, expanded the faculty and fine-tuned the panels and events. And we’ve added karaoke!

Most importantly of all, we’ve learned from the successes of our participants what it takes to get the most out of attending a conference — whether it’s Book Passage or other creative conferences around the country. Thinking ahead to TBEX in June and to the many other summer gatherings now offered, I thought it would be helpful to share the top tips I’ve learned from successful students.

Fittingly enough, as I’ve put these together, I’ve realized that these tips can equally be applied to getting the most out of any journey:1) Know before you go
Do your research before your journey starts. Know everything you can about the territory: the conference schedule (when do activities start and end, when are the break times, when do you eat, when can you rest), the venue (how far is it from your hotel to the event, where is food, caffeine and cabernet available), and the faculty (what are their blogs and their books and their areas of expertise – if at all possible, read their work before you go).

2) Plan your itinerary
Know who you definitely want to meet (authors, photographers, editors, publishers, producers, participants), and what subjects you want to learn about (at TBEX, for example, this could be making money from blogging, working with pr people, maximizing technology, and/or refining your non-fiction narrative style). If you want to be sure to meet author X and learn about subject Y, mark that author X is reading on Friday at 7 pm and subject Y is being discussed at a panel on Saturday at 10 am, and map your schedule accordingly (this is especially handy when someone spontaneously asks if you want to go to dinner on Friday).

3) Be a sponge
When I’m on the road on assignment, I try to absorb everything; I pick up brochures, postcards, menus, facts. I know I’ll end up discarding 90 percent of them, but since I’m not sure at the time which 10 percent I’ll want to use, I vacuum up everything I can. Past participants say the same applies to conferences. You won’t be able to attend that reading, workshop or panel after it’s over, so do everything you can while you can (and yes, this includes karaoke).

4) Embrace serendipity
Once you’ve crafted your carefully planned itinerary, don’t be afraid to detour from it. My best travel stories always come from serendipitous connections – the artist I meet through a chance encounter, the festival I hear about along the way. I love the story of the Book Passage student who by chance sat at a table with an editor from a publishing company, started talking about his travels in Europe and ended lunch with a contract for a book. If you meet someone fascinating or stumble upon a subject you know nothing about that instantly intrigues you, go with the flow. Dozens of students’ stories affirm that the life-turning, career-changing encounters were unplanned and unforeseen. When the universe opens a door, walk through it.

5) Practice the art of vulnerability
It’s a lesson I keep re-learning in my travels: The more open you are to the world, the more the world rewards you. Open yourself to the people and lessons around you. Embrace the risk; trust in the kindness of strangers. As countless students at Book Passage have found, if you really want to talk to Tim Cahill, pluck up your courage and approach him. (You’ll find he’s remarkably friendly.) And at TBEX, Book Passage and other conferences, you take out only as much as you put in. The more you leave there, the more you’ll bring home.

6) Keep the journey alive
The road doesn’t end when the conference ends. That’s just the beginning. Follow up with the contacts you’ve made. Incorporate the lessons you’ve learned. There’s no such thing as overnight success: All success is the result of hard work and respectful persistence. Pursue your passion; follow your dream. There’s no guarantee where your journey will take you, but as I learned long ago on the Karakoram Highway, there’s only one way to get there: step by step.

[flickr image via raindog]