Samantha Brown hears it from people all the time: “You have the best job in the world!” Heck, she even proclaims it herself (“girl with the best job in the world,” reads her Twitter bio), and it’s hard to argue otherwise. Brown, who is a travel expert and creator of the PBS show “Places to Love,” spends about 150 days a year on the road and has visited more than 65 countries in the last two decades, since she started hosting travel shows such as “Great Hotels,” Passport to Europe,” “Great Weekends” and others.
In the second season of “Places to Love,” which kicked off Jan. 5, Brown travels to Hong Kong, to play mah-jongg; savors green and red chile enchiladas (a.k.a. “Christmas” enchiladas) in Santa Fe, N.M.; and cruises the Rhine through Germany and France. Along the way, she meets people who make each town memorable, and she encourages viewers to get out there and do the same.
“One thing that really sets my show apart from others is everything that I do in the show is accessible to the traveler, sometimes even free,” Brown says. “Ninety-five percent of the people I meet, you can meet. So for me, the show is a true call to action to travel.”
Brown dished on what it’s like to travel for a living, what to say to bridge a language divide and how she keeps from getting cranky on the road. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Was travel an important part of your life growing up?
A: Not to the extent that it is now. I grew up in New Hampshire, and travel for my family was getting into a station wagon and driving to see our relatives in Pennsylvania, or maybe going to Cape Cod for the summer. And we went to Quebec in Canada for our international travels. I’d say it was pretty typical American: 4 a.m. wake-up calls, pack up into the Pontiac with the dog and a cooler of bologna sandwiches.
Q: Where is home, and what do you love most about it?
A: I live in Brooklyn. I love living in New York City. I feel like I can say with some authority that it is the best city in the world, and Brooklyn is a place that has total international exposure and yet it has this community, neighborhood feel to it so it’s really the best of both worlds. And I’m raising children here now — I have 5-year-old twins — and it’s just a great place to come back to.
Q: You travel about 150 days a year. Does that get lonely?
A: Absolutely. I think something people don’t realize about travel is how lonely it can be. Being lonely was a huge motivator for me to fall in love with the type of travel that I do now on my program, which is really connecting with people. At the end of every shoot day, where I would be spending time at another amazing museum in Europe or another castle, I would just go for a really long walk and I would find myself naturally where people lived. And I just loved to sit down in their cafes. I didn’t care if it was the number-one cafe or it’s where all the foodies thought you should go, I just loved being in people’s spaces, the less touristy the better. And I just got a natural ability, from that, to reach out to people. To strike up conversations with them, and be confident in realizing that I didn’t have to have a full knowledge of their language to just have a nice moment with them. And that’s all I needed. I would say loneliness is hard, but it’s a huge motivator for really experiencing a place on a more personal scale.
Q: Do you have a go-to question to use when chatting with someone whose language you might not know?
A: I realized that “Do you speak English?” can be seen as a challenge. It can be seen as a put-down if they don’t. I would always know how to say “May I have” in that country’s language, because I was always asking for something, and it would show that I needed something. And I would also say “No Spanish” or “No Español; English?” And that right away broke the ice. I found that when I said that, it was this natural way of saying I understand I’m in your country. I don’t speak your language. Do you possibly speak mine? And that changed everything. I just think being a kind person who recognizes I’m not from your country, but could you help me out? breaks a lot of ice.
Q: What’s something you always pack?
A: Peanut butter. I always say every bad travel decision or tantrum I have thrown is because I was hungry. 200 to 300 calories and I’m telling you, you’re making better choices. When I travel internationally I bring a whole jar if I’m checking a bag. It does count as a liquid so when I carry on I make a peanut butter sandwich. You have to bring it because it’s an American product; you can’t find it anywhere. If you’re in China, you are no way finding peanut butter.
Q: What’s one of your favorite memories or experiences from Season 2 of “Places to Love?”
A: One of my favorite moments was in Christchurch, New Zealand. In 2011, they suffered a really devastating earthquake. It totaled the city. And everyone who had money moved out of the city. People who were artists and couldn’t move stayed, and they started filling the gaps to create more joy in life. And one of the things this amazing group called Gap Filler did was create a dance floor out in the middle of a parking lot. There are speakers, and how you play the music is this old washing machine kind of controls the speakers and you put in two two-dollar coins and connect your phone and you can play whatever music you like. And everyone comes out. Dance troupes come out. The ballet school comes out and practices. It’s just this amazing idea. We wanted to show that. So we had this great Bollywood troupe and this man who teaches Bollywood dancing, and all these other people from around the world, and we all learned this Bollywood dance. It’s just this affirmation of hope, doing a Bollywood dance in the middle of a parking lot where a building used to be.
Q: What advice do you like to give about travel?
A: One of my tips for travel is that everyone talks about going off the beaten path, but you really don’t have to go off the beaten path — just kind of one block over. The Champs-Elysees in Paris, for example, is packed with tourists, and every shop is this massive chain store. But just two blocks over, the side streets, are where the locals are. So you don’t have to totally avoid that area. You can really use these tourist hotspots as great jumping off points to find the more interesting parts of the city.
Q: If you could be anywhere right now, where would it be?
A: I would love to be in China. I love that it’s nothing like home and you have to figure out what the heck is going on. I love being the only person in the room who looks like me and sounds like me, so it’s up to me. Everything is amazing. Everything is a discovery. Nothing is familiar, and that’s a great feeling.
Silver is a writer based in Chicago. Find her on Twitter: @K8Silver.
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