Growing up, I never went anywhere. I maybe went to a bar mitzvah in Atlanta when I was 9 and to Florida when I was 12. That was it. I’d certainly never been out of the country.
But in 1983, when I was 23, I got a free DHL flight to Europe. Before DHL had their own planes, they would send their cargo with passengers as excess baggage. All you had to do was hand the luggage tags to somebody holding a DHL sign in one of their many world destinations when you got off a plane, and then you were free to go about your business for two weeks. Then you’d do the same thing on the return flight from that city.
My friend got the Tuesday flight, I got the Wednesday flight, and we met up in Zurich and got right on a train to Paris. The first time walking around Paris, my mind was completely blown. I couldn’t believe how gorgeous it was; I couldn’t believe the way of life, the history. Every single sight and sound was mind-expanding. Every person I spoke to, every interaction, every park, every bite of food, every trip on the subway was a miracle to me.
After a few days there, I took an overnight train to Florence because my parents had told me that on their one trip to Europe my mother’s favorite place was Florence. I shared a third-class train with a couple from Florence who spoke very little English, but I loved trying to communicate with them. I went to the dining car and got the cheapest bottle of wine—it was all I could afford—and we stayed up all night talking. They even drew pictures of the things I should see in Florence, and they gave me their address and phone numbers and told me to visit their family bakery.
So, of course, the next day I went to the family bakery. I was treated as if I were a hero. The father loved America and John Wayne. He had me sit down and gave me every pastry that he made, and he had his friend from the butcher shop down the block bring meat to put on my bread. Another lady from next door brought me soup. I felt like visiting royalty, and I was just a kid who happened to meet their kid on a train! It was an absolutely life-changing experience.
Now, flash forward 10 or 15 years, to when I was making Everybody Loves Raymond. Between seasons 1 and 2 of our show, I asked Ray Romano what he was going to do on his vacation. He said, “I go to the Jersey Shore.” I said, “That’s nice. Have you ever been to Europe?” And he said, “Nope. I’m not really interested in other places.” And I was like, Wow. And a lightbulb went off: We’ve got to do an episode where we send you to Italy with that attitude.
It took me three years to get the money in the budget to do it—and to convince Ray to get on a plane—but we did it, and I saw what happened to me years ago happen to him: the magic of it, that transformation. I saw him get it, and when he got it, it gave me such joy. There’s no greater high than to see someone’s face light up when you give them a taste of something that you know is good. That’s when it all clicked: I said, “I wish I could do this for everybody.” Ten years later, I started my travel show.
And that bakery in Florence? I stayed in contact with those people for years, but when I moved to California we lost touch—until 30 years later, when I was doing the first iteration of our PBS show, I’ll Have What Phil’s Having. I hadn’t been able to get in touch with them, but without me knowing it my production team did, and they surprised me by taking me to the bakery. It looked and smelled just how I remembered it, and when I went in, there they were—and that reunion is in the show. It was just magical to bring the whole thing full circle. Travel changes you. The whole message of Somebody Feed Phil is go. Stop watching this and go.
The fifth season of Phil Rosenthal’s travel documentary series, Somebody Feed Phil, is streaming now on Netflix, and a book of the same title is set to be published in October. His new podcast, “Naked Lunch,” launched in May.