ROBERT ST. JOHN: Gratitude overflows as we end our six-month research tour

By Robert St. John

As I sit down to write this first column in a wrap-up series of the six-month, 17-country, two-continent research tour through Europe, I am struck by an overwhelming feeling of gratitude.
I am grateful to the employees and managers of our restaurants who did an excellent job keeping the wheels in motion during my absence. I am grateful to our customers who helped make 2011 a record sales year for the company. I am grateful to longtime friends, new friends and friends we have never even met for their prayers of support and well wishes. I am also grateful to the friends we met along the way.
I am extremely grateful to my wife and two children who never once called me “crazy” (at least to my face) during the planning process. In December 2008, they had no idea I was serious about uprooting them from their daily lives to live nomadically for an extended period of time, a world away from everything they knew. They might have been skeptical during the planning process, but once they realized it was going to happen, they were solid.
Two days after we returned, a friend asked me, “What did you learn about yourself on the trip?”
Without hesitation, I said, “I learned that I can spend 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for six months with my wife and two children – sometimes living under extremely adverse conditions – and love every minute of it.”
The most frequently asked question I’ve fielded since our return has been, “Of all of the cities, countries and locales you visited, where was your favorite place?” That’s an easy one: Tuscany.
During the three-week Tuscan leg of the tour, I gained a year’s worth of recipes for our restaurants, and learned enough Italian dishes to fill a cookbook. I’ll be rolling out recipes I have learned on this trip for years to come.
There were surprises along the way – good and bad. Before we left, we were warned about the rudeness of some European people and the general dislike of Americans in certain countries. We never saw it. We learned that as long as you greet people in their local language, smile, make an effort to communicate, and act respectfully, we’re all pretty much the same.
We told our kids they were representing America, and that some of the people we were going to meet might never have met anyone from the United States. Therefore their view of our country was going to be based on their impression of us. The kids did their part, and except for one rude waitress in Vienna, we did ours.
The changes in our children have been monumental. It’s not just an awakening of their overall curiosity and attitude about the world, but in their relationships with us, and with each other. It wasn’t noticeable while on the road, but back home, the changes are obvious. It is for that reason alone, I am most grateful.
The trip, in a word, was life-changing. OK, so it’s a hyphenated word, but it’s an accurate description of the result.
In August, on the plane ride over to Europe, I made a journal entry titled “What we learned as a family.” I am sure I expected to revisit that question, and one day end a book or a magazine piece with a dramatic line such as: “We went to the continent to learn about Europe, and in the end, we wound up learning about ourselves.”
Actually, as it turns out, we knew ourselves pretty well. We ended up learning a lot about Europe, the people, the culture and especially the food. And for that, I am grateful.
Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef and author of numerous books.