Human brains are hard-wired to connect. It’s how we learn about the world around us and how we learn about ourselves. And in the series of moments that make up our lives, it’s moments of genuine personal connection that shine the brightest. This is never more true than when we travel.
For Jessica Nabongo, writer, entrepreneur and the first Black woman to visit every country in the world, making those connections is one of the most important and cherished parts of her journey not only throughout the globe, but through life.
“One question I ask people a lot is, what makes you happy?” Nabongo says. “Whether I’m talking to royalty or if I’m talking to someone who has nearly nothing living in a village, the messages remain very, very similar. It’s all about our personal relationships.”
The daughter of Ugandan immigrants, Nabongo has been travelling internationally since she was 4 years old. In 2008, she left her corporate job and moved to Japan to teach English. She ended up living abroad for seven years, with stints in London, Benin and Rome, before returning to her hometown of Detroit, Michigan. But in 2017, with 60 countries already under her belt, Nabongo decided that she would set out to visit every single country in the world and share it all on Instagram under the handle @jessicanabongo. Two years and 136 countries later, she accomplished her record-breaking feat.
Recently, she connected with Florence, one of Italy’s most beautiful cities and centre of the art and culture of the Italian Renaissance, during a visit with Alicia Miller Corbett – editor of Four Seasons Magazine – to record a podcast sharing more about her personal journey and perspective on connection.
At Four Seasons Hotel Firenze, centuries of history lie within reach in the Hotel’s expansive private garden – the largest in the city. Originally planted in the 15th century and filled with statues, fountains and a small Ionic temple, the garden retains its ancient beauty and charm. After a stroll under centuries-old trees and a Michelin-starred dinner garnished with views of iconic landmarks like the Duomo, Nabongo could maintain the Renaissance mood in her guest room, where frescoes and original architecture bridge the gap between their time and ours.
Deep in the Tuscan countryside, Giotto, a curly-haired Lagotto Romagnolo, goes sniffing through the woods in search of the elusive truffle. His owner, Luca, is close by. About an hour’s drive from Four Seasons Hotel Firenze, this truffle-hunting expedition offers Nabongo a rare glimpse into the rural heart of the region, both through the bucolic scenery and, later, through the cuisine. “To learn so much about the history of truffles, and to learn about it through [Luca’s] clear passion for it, it was such an amazing experience,” she says.
Explore Florence with Four Seasons
Extending an exploration beyond the major cities is one of the best ways to get know a new country. And for Nabongo, experiencing a destination is much more than a change in geography. “I think even beyond going outside the main cities, it’s about how you explore any place you visit,” she says. “My passport into a country – my entry point – is always the people.”
What happens if you don’t speak the language? No problem, says Nabongo. Her philosophy? “I speak with my heart and not with my mind.”
Whether you’re worried about travelling alone, visiting certain countries or even sampling the street food, Nabongo always encourages people to leave their fears at home. “I would say that my travel philosophy is to travel without fear. And to travel with positive energy,” she says. “I always say positive energy coats my stomach, because I’ve never had food poisoning!”
It’s true that one of the easiest ways to connect with a new culture – and with new people – is to sit down for a meal. In Florence, it could be a four-course gourmet meal designed by the Hotel’s Michelin-starred chef and served on the famed Ponte Vecchio – an experience available exclusively to Hotel guests – or standing in line with the locals for an order of trippa or lampredotto at one of the city’s ubiquitous food stands. Either way, being open to new foods and new people doesn’t just satisfy your body, it satisfies your soul.
Explore the World with Four Seasons
“I’m constantly living outside of my comfort zone. I think my comfort zone is discomfort,” Nabongo says, laughing. “Even beyond travel, my life philosophy is to live fearlessly – and live a life without limits.” By documenting and writing about her travels, she hopes that her journey and everything she shares can help inspire people to move past their limits, whatever they may be. “Because for me, I feel like I’ve created the life that I want to live,” she says. “And I feel that the reason I was able to do that is because I realized everything that I need is already inside of me.”
Connections, expected or unexpected, can help inform how we interact with the world. And that can ripple out beyond us. A friendly encounter at a restaurant may inspire you to recommend it to a friend who’s visiting the same city. A conversation with a tour guide or fellow traveller might change your itinerary for the better. Or a new dish or drink is shared with you and you in turn share it with your family back home.
Nabongo can think of many of these moments that have impacted her throughout her travels, particularly when it comes to hospitality. “I think that hospitality comes from the experiences that I’ve had because so many strangers around the world have welcomed me into their home and cooked me meals,” she says. “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve made sure to sort of perfect how I’m welcoming people in my home. And honestly, it’s also redefined my definition of home. For me, now, home is in people. Yes, I physically live in Detroit, but I have homes in London, Accra, Dakar, Bangkok, Rome – I can think of so many places that I have homes because my people are there.”
To feel at home in the world. What more could a traveller – or a human, for that matter – ask?
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