Robert St. John
Acclaimed restaurateur Robert St. John tells the story of how a Beatles-themed Monopoly game led him on a path to Amsterdam.
A sliding door moment is a seemingly inconsequential action that alters the trajectory of future events. I am sitting in a bakery at 8:30 a.m. in the city center of Amsterdam, due to a board game. That is a sliding door moment. There’s a theory that the simple act of missing a train or a bus can alter the course of the rest of one’s life. This example is illustrated brilliantly in the film, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The movie displays the principle in a montage of events— one as simple as a shoelace breaking— to effectively illustrate the concept. If any of the seemingly insignificant events had not happened, the course of Daisy’s life would have gone in an extremely different direction. Brad Pitt’s narration as Button effectively describes the chain of events that led to Daisy, a ballet dancer, getting hit by a taxi which ended her dancing career.
The sliding door moment that has me eating a koffiebroodje pastry with a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice in a bakery in Amsterdam occurred over a Monopoly game. It’s true. If I follow the sliding-door trail all the way back to why I am sitting here today, it’s evident that it all started with the long-standing Parker Brothers board game with miniature houses, hotels, play money, and get-out-of-jail-free cards (I was always the race car, by the way).
Here’s the abbreviated version— my wife and kids gave me a Beatles-themed Monopoly game for Christmas in 2009. While we were playing the game sometime between Christmas and New Year’s I looked at my daughter and it struck me that I should change my longtime plan of the family visiting one European country for a month every summer, to just doing it all at once and the four of us going to Europe and visiting 17 countries and 72 cities in six months.
Over the next two years, I worked on that plan. In August of 2011, we flew to Sweden and bought a Volvo. After several countries in several weeks, we ended up in Tuscany in a villa I found online owned by Annagloria and Enzo Corti. Once I returned from that trip and was on a promotional tour for the book “An Italian Palate,” people started asking if I’d be interested in taking them overseas to eat in the places I had written about, meet the people I was continuing to write about, and to see the beautiful places my buddy Wyatt Waters had painted for the book.
I made a Facebook post announcing a one-off tour to Tuscany. It filled in an afternoon. On that first tour, a guide that was supposed to lead the group through Siena cancelled at the last minute. Annagloria said, “I know a lady who lives here in Tavarnelle who a certified guide for Siena.”
I said, “See if she’s available.” Annagloria called Marina Mengelberg, a Dutch woman living in Tuscany. Marina led our group masterfully through Siena. She was well-versed, engaging, and charming. She did such a good job, and the guests loved her so much, that we used her in San Gimignano, too. Eventually, we started using her in Florence, and when Waters retired from co-hosting these trips, she stepped in.
That original tour ended up not being a one-off. There was a waiting list. Then the waiting list grew a waiting list. Before long I had hosted several groups in Tuscany. Those guests started asking, “Where are we going next?” In my opinion, Venice is the most unique city in the world. Bologna is the food capital of Italy, and Milan is beautiful around Christmas, so I led a few tours to those cities. Again, they asked, “Where are we going next?” The most logical choices seemed to point southward so I led three tours through Rome, the Amalfi Coast, and Naples.
I visited those cities during the original family trip. But I needed some help planning the Rome-Amalfi details. I asked Marina if she had any contacts in the Rome travel industry. She hooked me up with a guy named Jesse Marinus, a Dutchman living in Rome who works for a travel service. He joined us on that tour and— like his Tuscan-Dutch counterpart— was engaging, charming, funny, and hard-working. The guests loved him.
Soon, the guests who traveled to Tuscany, Venice, Bologna, Milan, Rome, Amalfi, and Naples with us began asking, “Where are we going next?” Spain had been my second favorite country on the long trip with the family, so I made that the next destination. Jesse worked with me on that trip. While touring Spain we were with people who had been on multiple trips with us. They all knew Jesse and Marina (sidenote: AP Style requires the last name to be used when a proper name is repeated. But, like Elvis, Cher, Madonna, and Bono, Marina and Jesse are travel rockstars, they only need one name).
I’m not sure how the original idea of a trip to Holland and Belgium came about, but to my recollection, it was sometime during one of our Dutch friend’s trips to Mississippi. Marina and her two children visited in 2019, as Annagloria and Enzo had done a few years earlier. Jesse was with us in Mississippi for a couple of weeks last year. It was nice having them in our homeland. I thought it would be a great idea for all the people who have traveled with us to be on their home turf.
What is it with the Dutch? Everyone I’ve met from this area are great people. I had only been here briefly on that 2011 trip. I am about to meet up with 24 travelers from the American South, who landed yesterday. Out of those 24, only four haven’t traveled with me before. For some it will be their sixth trip in the last six years.
Those guests have no idea that if only one thing had happened differently, if Parker Brothers hadn’t licensed a Beatles Monopoly game, or my wife hadn’t bought that Beatles Monopoly game as a Christmas gift, or I would have stuck with the original plan of different countries for a month each year, or if I had chosen one of the other 22 Tuscan villas I was researching, or if the original Siena guide wouldn’t have canceled that day, or if Marina had suggested another Rome contact, we wouldn’t be here about to spend 10 days with people who have become my close friends traveling through the Netherlands and Belgium.
In the end, Button got Daisy, and hundreds of Americans got Marina and Jesse.