Tag Archives: travel

A Barefoot Stroll With Brenda Della Casa

25 Aug

Hard to believe, but the lovely and talented BDC and I are about to celebrate our “one year anniversary.” We met in a most serendipitous way here in Rome last year over cocktails prepared by one of the world’s best mixologists, and ended up forming a friendship both professional and personal that continues to grow as time goes on. Brenda was savoring her last evening in Rome, and I just happened to grab the bar stool next to her. The rest is, as they say, history. So appropriate for Rome, no?

Little did I know then that Brenda’s time spent in Rome had such a significant role in her life’s journey (read The Fear of Letting Go), and little did I know at the time what a significant impact she would have on mine as well! Here I catch up with Brenda for a chat about life, love, and basically the art and science of being her fabulous self: a role model for women’s empowerment and lifestyle expert extraordinaire. Enjoy!

Photo credit: Graffiti, Aisha Singleton; Makeup: Lauren Cosenza

Photo credit: Graffiti, Aisha Singleton; Makeup: Lauren Cosenza

Brenda Della Casa
Editor in Chief of Walking Barefoot, Author of Cinderella Was a Liar, Director of Online Content for Preston Bailey, Huffington Post Blogger and Managing Partner of I Am Staggered

First of all, can you briefly chart for us the career path that has led to where you currently find yourself? Maybe just a rough sketch or outline of your trajectory: where you started and how you’ve gotten to where you are now, so we can delve further into the particulars.

Though I have always been a writer, as a teenager, I set out to become the next Marilyn Monroe, but when college was in the picture, I was more excited by the idea of spending my days breaking stories and writing than playing on stage. I took drama classes but it was my magazine writing classes that gave me a thrill. I had an incredible, smart and sophisticated professor, Marianne Szegedy-Maszak who really mentored me and changed the direction of my life by giving me an example of the woman I really wanted to become. I interned for President Clinton in The White House Communications and Press office and graduated with tons of ambition, but no job. I took a position casting reality TV shows and did that while trying to break into the journalism business and when we went on hiatus, I took a job at Morgan Stanley working for Ann Thivierge, Barton Biggs and two amazing mentors, Barbara Reinhart and David Dineen. Barbara told David I wanted to write, David had a girlfriend, Cari Wira, who was an editor at Woman’s Day and six years after graduating, I sold my first clip. Two years later, the executive assistant I worked with sent me a link to a comedy site, The Phat Phree and I contacted them to write for them (for free). I became the only female writer and we were contacted by an agent and given a book deal. That same agent accepted my pitch for Cinderella Was a Liar, a book based on my thousands of interviews for dating shows. See how one thing leads to another?

Tell us about how Walking Barefoot, your personal blog and now showcase for your lifestyle expertise, came into being, and a little about the niche that you’ve managed to carve out on the Internet. You started your site back when blogging was just a glimmer in most people’s eyes, so tell us about the exponential growth you’ve experienced, your readership, and your current mission and vision for your site.

In 2005, a colleague mentioned that her sister had started something called a “Blog” and I was intrigued by the idea of playing editor. I have great respect for Hugh Hefner and Diana Vreeland and a blog was a very small way for me to play out my fantasy of having my own online magazine. The posts started out silly, musings about my coffee guy and the shoes I had found on my way home from the market, but it soon grew into something more authentic, a place where I followed Hemingway’s suggestion that writers sit at a typewriter and bleed. The more honest and open and vulnerable I was, the more emails I received from people who were also dealing with this and that. In the past 8 years, this site has grown to be read in over 160 countries and by a very wide demographic. The bulk of my readers range from 17-45 and there is no significant majority when it comes to income or race. That’s pretty telling in that it shows me that we are all dealing with the human experience, no matter where we are in our lives. We all have pains and fears, worries about our future, ties to our past and concerns about how to navigate through life. We also all have reasons to be grateful and joyful as well as the power to change our future by doing the work here in our present. My mission is always to remain authentic and real and to bring some kind of value to my reader, even if it is simply a five minute break in a stressful day, but also to really listen to my readers and give them what they ask for. I’d like to see more guest posts and eventually start videos and a TV program.

You are quite a Renaissance woman, with your talents extending into several different endeavors and fields. Can you share with us the process of writing your book Cinderella Was a Liar and how that project came to fruition? What was your biggest challenge in bringing that book to the market, and what are you most proud of as a result of publishing?

That’s very sweet of you to say, but I really see myself as someone with great curiosity. I am an ambitious creature but only in the sense in that I like to conquer things which I half-jokingly blame on my being an Aries. I have always had the dream of having an empire like Playboy, but have always treated every article assignment like a gift which has kept things exciting. My grandfather was always reminding me to focus on one thing at a time and over time it will build something. I focus on six things at a time and I am grateful a foundation has been built. I didn’t set out to write a book or to start a blog, I just knew that I wanted to write and when opportunities presented themselves, I jumped at them. I pitched several ideas to my agent, Byrd Leavell, after he had approached us about The Phat Phree and we worked through it and took it to the houses. I led the meeting at McGraw-Hill and was later told that it was partly my proposal and partly that meeting that sold Cinderella Was a Liar. I wrote the book in six months. I loved the process and what the book brought into my life (people, opportunities, readers) but I would say, in terms of publishing, I am most proud of having the courage to write about my past for The Huffington Post and a little piece called Twenty-something: Quarter Life Crisis which went viral and continues to be posted and shared by people 12 years later. I am also deeply proud to work for Preston.

Let’s talk about that. You’re currently the online content manager for Preston Bailey, an innovative, world-renowned and highly sought-after wedding and event planner. I think many people would consider this to be a dream job. What’s it like to work in such a high-profile and influential role? What brings you the most satisfaction in this position, and what unique skills and assets do you bring to Mr. Bailey’s brand?

Along with writing for Esquire, working for Preston is my dream job. Preston is an icon, but he is also hilarious, deeply generous, kind and humble in ways no one would expect. I feel I can call, email or go to him for anything at any time and that really says something about him. My other team members are incredible as well. My CFO is like an oracle, terrifyingly smart and charismatic, and my CEO is one of the funniest, ambitious and challenging people I have ever met. My colleagues are my friends and we spend most of our day working and laughing very hard. I was able to play an integral role in the design and development of the new site (www.prestonbailey.com) which is an online magazine. I am fortunate that Preston really values each person’s talent and gift and he and my CEO really allow me to own my role and take my suggestions and ideas very seriously while mentoring me to always become a better writer, editor and even person. I learn so much every day and am challenged in ways that really push me. I really grow in this role and I feel I add value while working with a talented and hard-working team, all the while surrounded by the beauty created by Preston Bailey—who can ask for more than that?

Now, let’s talk for a moment on a personal level. You’ve been remarkably open about the difficulties you faced in childhood, as you alluded to earlier when you mentioned the courage it took to share about your past in some of your writing for The Huffington Post. You’re also very open and candid throughout your writing, which I really appreciate. Coming from my own social work background, I like that you consistently maintain a theme of encouraging self-empowerment for women. How much of an influence have your personal struggles and challenges had on your ability to strive for such excellence and succeed in such high achievement in your life, both professional and personal? In what ways do you think you continually model one of your mottos, “Always a soldier, never a victim?”

Great question! I think my struggles in childhood and early adulthood impacted my development, but I was determined not to allow them to define me, in part, because I was so ashamed of where I had come from. I was always treated as though I was “less than” everyone else because of my situation–be it my marks, my clothing or my not having a place to live. I was told by my father that I was the wrong gender, by my mother that I was discardable, and even those who cared for me painted a grim picture of the road ahead. My favorite teacher said that it was a shame that the bus would always run me over and I would not have the chance others would have to go to college or have a normal life because of my circumstances. Quite frankly, that was the worst and best thing to ever say to me. I know I can credit my grandfather’s influence for any decent qualities I have, and as flippant as it sounds, I also think that looking up to Madonna as much as I did really helped me. I fought to finish high school while not having a real home, I fought to get into college, and I moved to New York and emulated Madonna’s “I will get what I want” attitude until I proved to myself and those around me that I was as worthy as everyone else. Lastly, I know what it feels like to be victimized and to feel helpless and powerless, so I really admire true personal power. I have amazing women in my life who are in total control of themselves and who take care of themselves and of those they love and stand up for themselves, and I know what it feels like on both sides. Being in control of your own life and protecting yourself feels better, and I want all of my readers to feel the security of knowing they are enough as they are, even if there are some things they want to polish, and they can handle anything that comes their way but do not have to keep handling disrespect or devaluation, even from themselves.

Can you tell us about one of the most formative experiences of your professional life, the impact that it had on you and how it either directly or indirectly brought you to where you are currently?

Working for Preston. I would say that it has pushed me to be the best I can be each and every day. When you are representing the print portion of a brand like Preston’s, you need to constantly educate and push yourself. It’s a very tough and rewarding position and I am lucky to work for Preston and be a part of his team.

Tell us three (or more!) things you are grateful for every day.

My health, my family of friends, Tony Montana (my chihuahua), my career, my readers, having the opportunity to experience travel and the fun things I get to experience as a result of my job and having a home that is safe, secure and that no one can kick me out of.

What’s next for Brenda Della Casa? Where can we expect to see you go from here, and how can we get involved?

I am launching a new site, re-launching I am Staggered and working on some new projects that will allow me to be more interactive with my readers. I am also off to Puerto Rico with my girlfriend next week and then planning a trip to Spain.

Where can we find you online?

Walking Barefoot, as well as social media: @BrendaDellaCasa on Twitter, Walking Barefoot on Facebook, Google+, and Pinterest.

Lastly, what advice would you give to your younger self, knowing what you know now? And, what advice would you give to a young woman (or man!) looking to make their way in the world?

To my younger self: Don’t try and make things work with someone who disrespects and/or devalues you. The pain of trying to undo that kind of treatment is worse than the pain of loss you will experience. It also wastes precious time and resources better utilized to enhance your life with travel, new experiences and new relationships. I would also tell her to work hard but also work smart and accept that not everything is going to go her way because she is human, not because of where she came from. Lastly, I would tell her to pay attention to what people do and not what they say and to make adjustments in her own behavior based on what they do/do not do. Just because someone was nice doesn’t mean that you still need to be when they start being nasty.

My advice to others is the same and to also know that you aren’t supposed to have the answers, life gives lessons and tests and gold stars along the way. Make a plan and don’t be afraid to tweak it or abandon it altogether when it’s clear that is the best choice. As my friend Lauren says, “Prepare for all scenarios, balance risk vs. reward, and then follow your heart.”

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Home Is Where the Soul Is

18 Jul

I had heard of Pico Iyer, knew the name, but hadn’t ever read anything by him or seen him speak. This morning I got this TED Talk in my inbox and I sat spellbound for nearly 15 minutes, just pausing occasionally to quickly scribble down a few quotes that resonated in my heart. I think those of you who know what it’s like to travel, to live in foreign countries, to visit new places, to truly embrace the world in whatever form that takes for you, as well as those of you who, like so many of us, find it difficult to know when it’s time to stop moving and find stillness, will find that this talk resonates with you as well. Iyer refers to the over 220 million people living in countries that are not their own as “this great floating tribe.” Some of his other poetic and insightful observations:

“For more and more of us, home has really less to do with a piece of soil, than, you could say, with a piece of soul.”

“Where you come from now is much less important than where you’re going.”

“Home is not just the place where you are born—it’s the place where you become yourself.”

“It’s only by stopping movement that you can see where to go.”

“Movement ultimately only has a meaning if you have a home to go back to.”

I was born in Virginia, and by the age of five I had already lived in Connecticut, Michigan, and Washington. Next came Arizona, Delaware, and then finally, Rome.

Rome is where I found my soul, and the place I go back to. The United States is where I derive the basis for most of the cultural and moral values that sustain me. But ultimately aren’t so many of us now simply children of the world at large? When we step back to reflect on these questions, it’s clear that despite all the chaos, strain, and stress that technology has brought into our daily lives, it is truly a divine time to be alive, especially for those of us curious enough to step off the cliff for the next adventure.

Click here to visit Pico Iyer’s website, Pico Iyer Journeys.

The Food Police and a Cross Pollinating Beehive

1 Jul

I was just telling a friend of mine the other day, actually my former aupair-turned-Rome-expat-herself, that one of the things I love most about living here in Rome is that pretty much every single one of the expat friends I’ve met here has a really amazing and interesting story to tell. It’s one of the fringe benefits of living in a country that’s not your own: you tend to meet other adventurous people who are living in a country that’s not their own, and each and every one of them generally has a story that’s worth writing if not an entire book, at least a little short story about.

Well. One couple of friends could easily fill multiple volumes of expat lore and literature, part of what I consider my Old Guard of Roman expats. These are people who came here just a bit before me, and who I’ve been able to see grow and thrive through the years.

Steve and Linda of The Beehive were “known to me” before I actually knew them personally. That’s how it tends to go around here. The English-speaking expat community is a rather small world and we’re all just a degree or two of separation, often having heard of someone before even meeting them in person. And so it goes in my relationship with the Brenner-Martinez clan.

Back in, oh, probably 2003 or so, a friend of mine whom I had met through the school where I was teaching ESL, lent me a paperback written by a woman who had spent time living in Rome. I can’t for the life of me remember the name of the book, the author, or anything, as these books do tend to pop up like mushrooms, and this was before the big blog explosion (many of us Rome bloggers had our start circa 2005-2006 when blogs were just becoming a bit more prevalent). But one thing I do remember is that whoever-she-was specifically mentioned she had worked for Steve and Linda. The Beehive was just under the surface of my consciousness, as it seemed like a sort of destination/checkpoint for expat travelers and people who wanted something richer than a standard cookie-cutter experience in Rome.

{Post-script: Linda helpfully clued me in to the book I was talking about. Penelope Green, “When in Rome.” Brilliant. Why didn’t Julia Roberts play her in a movie? I don’t know. She wrote two more books about Italy-go here.}

{Whoa. Double post-script. I did a Google search for the When in Rome book and, lo and behold, holy crapoly man, I actually WROTE AN ENTIRE POST ABOUT IT back in 2007. That was when my blog used to be called At Home in Rome, when I was renting out the tourist apartments I mention in the paragraph to follow. Jesus, people. Even the story I told you about how I got the book was wrong. That must have been another book another expat lent me. This one I actually got on my HONEYMOON at the Sydney airport. *shakes head in mock disbelief* Senility sets in at age 36. This is what happens when you try to raise three preschoolers as a single working mom while holding down a blog and moonlighting as a tarot consultant. For the love of God.}

A few years later, I started my own tourist lodging business in Trastevere (I left that business in 2008 when I started a family) and got to know Steve and Linda as local colleagues, but never in person and was just sort of aware of them and of their by-now almost legendary B&B that was pretty much booked solid all the time. I’d always recommend them to my guests if I was booked (I only rented two apartments and my premise around travel was based on the “Slow Travel” movement, so we generally had guests with similar travel “tastes”).

Come full circle to 2011 when I finished my three year odyssey of living back in the States, and serendipity had it that Steve and Linda were just moving back to Italy after having had a sabbatical as well. Linda and I became fast friends through mutual acquaintances, finally met in person, now each of us with three children a piece, and I am happy to say that our friendship has grown over the last couple of years.

Steve and Linda are full of creative ideas, projects, community spirit, and have filled a void in this city by offering wonderfully eco-conscious and stylish accommodations that are still within reach price-wise in this exorbitantly expensive city, as well as providing a dietary-sensitive alternative for travelers, with a cafe’ and vegan buffet three times a week open to guests and non-guests alike.

Gush, gush, I love them, can you tell?

But the whole point of this post wasn’t actually to be an advertorial, if you can believe it. The point was actually just to share something super fun with you. Steve and Linda have three vibrant young daughters who are the stars of a homegrown video series called “The Food Police,” and I love it.

You have to see their lastest episode with Rick Steves. And then go “like” their FB page for Cross Pollinate, their website with hand-picked and inspected cool places to stay across Europe.

Who knows where their adventures will take them next?

The Food Police – The Rick Steves Episode from Cross-Pollinate Travel on Vimeo.

Italo Train

21 May

2012-05-21 13.30.46

Otherwise known as: Trenitalia, eat your heart out, you sluggish beast, you! Here comes your sexier younger sister.

Anyways, what’s the fuss about? Today I started seeing these billboards plastered everywhere.

2012-05-21 13.33.19
“You’ll say Italo to mean train.”

Looks like the marketing blitz for Italo has begun.

Italo is being touted as the “Ferrari of Italian trains” because it’s sleek and truly high-speed, not fake high speed like some of us have experienced with Trenitalia. Meaning, high-speed until you get to the outskirts of Naples where for some inexplicable-but-certainly-having-nothing-to-do-with-organized-crime reason, the high-speed tracks stop and the train, the high-speed train, has to slow down to regular, i.e., slow train speed. Let’s just say it gave me plenty of time to admire the architectural gems that make up the periphery of Naples, and the clothes hanging from them.

But the Ferrari title probably comes mainly from the fact that the company that markets this privately-owned train company is managed by Luca Cordero di Montezemolo. Try saying that three times fast, right? Rich people have long and important names in Italy, usually with “di” something figuring in there somewhere as a precursor to a second last time. Because, you know, two last names is certainly more important and rich-sounding than just one. I, alas, do not have anything akin to a double last name or a “di” anywhere, but if you want you can call me Shelley Ruelle di Roma. That might be fun.

And yet, as usual, I digress.

I really want to ride one of these trains. They look so shiny and candy-apple red and so … well, so NOT Trenitalia. Woe to the travelers with Trenitalia, we all have our stories, just like our war wounds from experiences at the ol’ post office.

The NYT article says that meals will be served by, and I quote, “primly dressed attendants.” Why primly? (Which, according to Merriam-Webster online, is correctly defined as “stiffly formal and proper; decorous”). Forget the fact that they’re actually serving meals. Meals! Meals, I tell you! But—primly. What is that supposed to imply? That the Trenitalia attendants are dressed skimpily? That the Trenitalia attendants are nothing less than, well, stiffly formal and proper?

Oh, wait, that’s right! Silly me! (slaps head in a mock-comic gesture of baffled amazement and wonder) Trenitalia doesn’t HAVE attendants. As far as my second-class traveling ass knows, that is. At least as long as you define “attendant” as someone who does something—anything—to assist you during your journey.

But wait! Now come to think of it, I have had the pleasure of being a first class passenger on a Trenitalia Eurostar. I still can’t tell you whether or not they employ “attendants,” as frankly, the only benefit I enjoyed was the fact that there were actually working toilets. And if you think I’m trying to be *funny* then I encourage you, too, to embark on the lovely journey from Paola in Calabria up to Rome, in the summer, in a train without air-conditioning but with rickety old windows that half-open, and with one—yes count IT, one—working bathroom. Add in a little kid puking in the aisle and, well, let’s just say a stiffly formal and properly dressed attendant would have been a nice thing to have. Oh, the joys are never-ending, let me tell you! That is, if you find joy in the idea of impersonating a farm animal riding the train on the way to being ruthlessly slaughtered. No, slaughtering didn’t take place. But feeling like a farm animal on the way to it, that did take place. Yes, indeedy.

My first thought however is, price? I mean, let’s be honest. For all the AMAZING service you receive, Trenitalia isn’t cheap. Holy crap. You know I’d love to go crash on Mrs. Red’s couch like EVERY weekend, if it wasn’t for the fact that the Trenitalia bastards attendants would make me pay €180 round-trip to do so. Yes, you read right, it costs nearly $120 each way, so you’re looking at about $230 or thereabouts for a round-trip train ride Rome to Milan. Is that affordable? Not for the likes of me. And think, that’s without the primly dressed attendants. Can I get a WTF in the house?

Ok, let’s go comparison shopping. Wait one moment please while I consult Italotreno’s fares. I am fully willing to lose face if they cost way more than Trenitalia.

Holy crap people! I just discovered I can get a ticket to Milan for €30. Where’s the catch?

It’s a promo fare, but I’ll take it. No, not only will I take it, I will very primly board that train with a prim smile on my face. It will be very decorous and no farm-animals or broken bathrooms or children vomiting better ruin my trip.

Hello my dear, get ready, I’m coming!!

Jumping Without a Safety Net

20 Feb

Living life as an expat has so many challenges, and one of the cardinal rules I’ve learned that has served me quite well is simply this: jump, and the net will appear.

It sounds so naive and so reckless, and yet, part of living abroad for me is a continual risk, in the sense that life is uncertain, and trying to pretend that everything is going to fall into place perfectly in the “five year plan” for me is just an illusion.

Let me get esoteric on you here.

Take a look at this image:

This is a Tarot card; this card is the first in the deck: “The Fool.”

He is the perfect example of “jump and the net will appear.” (A quote attributed to John Burroughs)

Sometimes, ignorance is bliss, and sometimes, being foolish brings the biggest rewards.

My move to Rome back in 2001 was an act of “foolishness” that has led me down so many various and exciting paths, and brought so many wonderful people into my life, and has asked me time and time again to just walk off that cliff and wait for the invisible net to appear. The archetypical “fool’s journey” represented by the tarot also for me reflects what it’s like to jump into life in a foreign country and make your way through the unknown to eventually come out the other side somewhere, only to then start all over again!

Why do I bother to post this at all? Because I find time and again that articles like my BFF blogger buddy Sara’s recent “Stop Sabotaging Your Own Success: A Manifesto” always seem to resonate with so many people who want to take a chance, but for some reason just hang on the edge of that cliff. As of today, 195 commenters and many, many “likes” and shares attest to the fact that we can take heart that we’re not alone when we want to take a risk but need a push, or feel afraid.

I was recently reading this biography of Albert Einstein, and was pleasantly reassured when I saw that he had tried for so many job openings prior to getting hired at the Swiss Patent Office (and even then only through a close personal connection), that he actually had to take an ad out in a newspaper offering his services as a math and physics tutor:

Sometimes we have to be less black and white about things, and about life in general. The only thing that is certain is that everything changes. Finding a way to balance a scientific and rational view of the world with a more open, curious, child-like and mysterious view of the world, for me has become a tricky but effective combination necessary for a *usually* successful life as an expat. The bottom line is, it’s never too late. And we are often our own worst enemies.

Cultivating faith in life and in the fact that no matter what happens, happens for a reason, has often helped me to get through days where I wondered what the heck I was doing here. And it applies not only to expat life, but to life anywhere, at any time. When your heart is calling, leap, and the net will appear. And most of all, take other people’s opinions into account, but then go with what you feel in your gut is the right thing to do. We give way too little weight and value to our inner intuition and I think that cultivating intuition is one of life’s great gifts, and something we all have hidden deep down.

Years ago I wrote a post about my expat experience, called Bread and Tulips, and I realize now that as I raise three (!!) little half-Roman half-Americans, I’m kind of starting that journey all over again. It’s a 34 year old viewing Rome again with the eyes of that 24 year old who first came here nearly 11 years ago and met her future husband, father of her kids, and future ex, all on day one! Life has its ups and downs. Cultivating faith that in the end, that net is going to be there, is one way of finding trust in life and trust in the bigger order of things.

“To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest.”
― Pema Chödrön