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Ambiance and Our Better Selves
By Kregg P. J. Jorgenson 
Posted October 29, 2006

     Ambiance is more than the French word for atmosphere. It has also come to mean that warm, fuzzy feeling we get from a special moment or place, that certain likeable and seemingly palpable something we recognize and appreciate almost immediately. We know when it’s there just as we instinctively know and are disappointed when it is missing.

  “It is like new love, nes pas?” explained a French waitress when I asked for a more colloquial definition. “We see with eagerness, yes?”

  “Yes,” I agreed, “and we don’t have to hold our stomachs in as much.” 

  Traveling on that special vacation abroad there’s a certain hope and expectation that we’ll find ambiance or something akin to it. If we don’t travel with great expectations then we at least travel with good expectations of a satisfying time or rewarding experience.

  It’s why we go for the Aprils in Paris, trek the Himalayas, run with the bulls in Spain, climb or ski the Alps, toss coins in foreign fountains, sing loudly out of tune at October Fest, or go in search of those scenic places and our favorite moments from travel brochures, books or movies.

  Factor in inflation, climbing fuel prices, limited vacation time, and carefully calculated budget and you want that trip abroad to be special.

   For many of us the wonderful thing about traveling in Europe is that sometimes what we’re looking for is waiting just around the next corner in a small village or town or at in any of the larger cities in comfortable cafes, wonderfully rowdy pubs, frenzied festivals, or anywhere where the feeling envelopes you and you’re instantly content. It doesn’t have to be one of those Archimedes ‘Eureka!’ moments, nor do you necessarily have to leap from your tub and run naked through the streets like he did either, unless of course that’s part of your package deal. Instead it can just be one of those comfortable moments.

   Frequent traveler Steve Bailey of Seattle is also an occasional tour guide who takes small groups of friends and traveling companions to specific parts of Europe for six weeks at a leisurely stretch.

  Bailey’s pre-trip preparation includes get-togethers with the travelers to discuss the country, region, and areas that they’ll visit over wine and European snacks, as tips and hints are discussed for a better vacation. This relaxed and informative approach for his regionally designed trips is well received.

  So what does Bailey have to say about finding ambiance for his himself and clients? “To me it is a combination of sights, sounds, smells, and tastes that come together in harmony to create the feeling of what the French call ‘joie de vivre’ which means a hearty and carefree enjoyment of life,” he explained.

  To Bailey it also means getting away from the over-indulged tourist spots and traveling to the out of the way villages and towns in Europe where you may be the only tourists to visit that day.

  “Sometimes it’s as simple as sitting on a terrace enjoying a glass of local wine with a plate of the Regional cuisine, while looking out over a valley planted with grape vines,” he said.

  Bailey added, “It’s listening to the locals greet one another and talk about the weather or whatever as you share these moments with friends and traveling companions who have the same passion for experiencing life in small town Europe as you do.”

  To Judy Staudt, a seasoned traveler finding ambiance involved finding the time to slow down her whirlwind Italian vacation to not only smell the proverbial roses but get a good whiff of what was going on in a countryside kitchen. Ambiance in Italian translates to ‘la dolce vita’- the sweet life.

  For Staudt and her sister Jean, ‘la dolce vita’ meant taking part in a morning-long regional cooking program and an afternoon of appreciating its meaning. The two sisters from Seattle, along with six other visitors, not only learned to prepare some regional Tuscan cuisine but later enjoyed the fruits of their kitchen labors.

  “As I sat outside the Rossi villa, which overlooked the rolling hills of vineyards and olive trees and contemplating whether or not I should have that piece of bruchetta, I thought to myself this is the moment which I will probably remember first and most often when I think of Italy,” said Staudt.

  “It’s not the Forum, not St. Mark’s and not the priceless art which lines the walls of the Uffizi. It will be the day I spent at a cooking class in Tuscany enjoying an Italian feast, including a pasta dish which I helped make, sitting in the garden withy the sun in my face, surrounded by the most beautiful scenery, getting to know the locals as well as other travelers. It’s in those moments when you really get the feel of the place you are visiting and those are the ones you remember the most.”

  Like Bailey, Staudt and the rest of us when we find that ambiance, where ever we are on vacation, that particular time and place becomes ours forever. It’s why we travel or should be and it’s how we bring back our own little piece of the world.

   And too, if we’re lucky enough we can bring back a better understanding of history or in the very least a tactile feel of a time or place that postcards and brochures cannot adequately convey.

  For Josephine Volzer of Wood Bridge, Virginia, “it’s falling into the rhythm and pace of a place and taking in the subtle differences other cultures have to offer.”

  In Italy while visiting relatives it was something as simple as going with a cousin to order pasta for dinner from a small shop only to discover that not only is it freshly made but that it would be delivered to their door in time for dinner.

  Volzer, a high school teacher, had lived and worked in Germany with her husband, Harvey and family for several years in the Rhine river cities of Mainz and Heidelberg. There she found that ambiance translated into Gemuetlichheit, the German version of the feeling. Occasionally they discovered it in flea markets, festivals and other moments where the atmosphere, sweet life, and genuine sense of joy gave them those shared special moments.

   The waitress was right. Finding ambiance is a lot like finding new love because even in our eagerness, when we’re willing to overlook a few flaws to see what we want and wish to see, for a brief time it also helps us find something of our better selves.     


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