Thanksgiving is explicitly a holiday of gratitude, of giving thanks for what we have. But for many (myself included) it is also a holiday of indulgence: in both eating and drinking. Given that our blog is called “Fields of Indulgence: World Travel & Spiritual Living”, perhaps we should examine the seeming contradiction of the ideas of “indulgence” and “spiritual living”.

What is “indulgence” truly? Is it the greedy pursuit of sensual pleasure in excess of one’s needs? Is it giving yourself a little extra treat at the end of the day because you “deserve” it? These may capture the shadow of the idea, but they omit a key point: that to truly indulge one most do so fully and wholeheartedly - a task that is not always so easy. To indulge is to merge with the activity you are performing so that there is no separation between you and it. 

What is ironic is that when we finally get onto vacation
or around the Thanksgiving table, we realize that we are often not really able to indulge. We may find ourselves stressed by family though we don’t understand why, anxious about how fast our vacation is going by, or feeling guilty for eating or drinking too much.

Piazza di Maggiore in Bologna
Neda and I planned an impromptu trip to San Miniato, Italy for the Annual White Truffle Festival being held there this weekend. We flew into Bologna on Monday the 21st (after the plane was dramatically diverted from our original destination of Forli when the pilot tried to land and realized he couldn’t see the runway through the fog!) and have been “practicing indulgence” in this gastronomic paradise ever since.

Aging Parmesian...
We’ve wondered the streets of Bologna, taking in its  architectural wonders while also taking in copious amounts of homemade pasta, salty-sweet gelato, and the region’s varied wines. We have gone out into the countryside of Modena to see local craftsmen preparing parmesan cheese and to see how small families produce limited batches of “Balsamic Vinegar di Modena” (only to then taste the vinegar with Ricotta that was freshly made an hour before at the Parmesan factory!). We saw how the famous proscuitto di parmais meticulously cured and dry aged, resulting in thin slices of buttery salt meat. Finally, on Thanksgiving itself, we sampled the region’s wild game  with dishes of wild boar and rabbit.

What has been interesting is that even while we have been practicing indulgence, we have noticed that we still find ourselves worrying about the money we are spending, about whether we are seeing enough, and other generalized anxieties that arise from traveling. These anxieties take us out of the present moment and into our own heads - alienating us from the experience lying right before us. It is at these times that we realize how truly challenging indulging can be. For to truly indulge, you must leave your baggage at the door so that you can be intimate with this present moment and fully experience it. And learning to leave our baggage behind, even for just a few moments, is a constant spiritual practice.
Thanksgiving Dinner in Modena
So when you find yourself in an indulgent situation this holiday season and the inevitable distractions between you and moment creep in -  – give yourself a mental break and allow yourself to connect to the experience. Really allow yourself to taste that piece of pumpkin pie without hurrying through to the next thing or thinking about something else as your eating it. If you have a friend, partner, or family member who can help gently and non-defensively point out when they see you disconnected from the moment and caught in unproductive thought patterns, even better. In this way your indulgences and your free time can become a spiritual practice for yourself and your family instead of just a license to excess.

It’s time for Neda and I to continue working with this practice as we head to San Miniato to sample the sensuous and savory white truffles! Check out some highlights of this leg of the trip (with captions) in the slideshow below or see them all on snapfish here. Ciao from Italy!

Bulgarians seem to have a particular interest in the American smile. We have seen advertising here touting the “American Smile” as a desirable and attractive thing. Friends of ours from Bulgaria have also commented on how often Americans seem to be smiling and how they like American smiles. And indeed, Neda and I have noticed that walking on the street we unconsciously flash a lot of smiles at folks that are not reciprocated.
Smiling at the Danceclub

This past 5 days our friend from Austin, Ryan Tietz, visited Bulgaria during a 4 month romp through Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Turkey and Thailand. He was acutely aware of less smiling in Europe in general, but thought it got even more noticeable as he moved further east into former Yugoslavian countries and then Bulgaria.
He was on a mission to get more people to smile during his visit - a mission that usually grew more urgent as we had more beers :-). 

Maybe Ryan had a point with his attempted smile invasion. Research has shown that smiling has numerous benefits. It boosts the immune system, lowers blood pressure, and stimulates the part of the brain associated with positive affect. It makes others find you more attractive, makes you 3x more likely to be remembered, and makes people more likely to see you as confident and successful. 

But most of these studies were done in America - what about cultural bias? Psychologists have noted a variety of cultural differences in smiling. In Russia, smiling in public is considered inappropriate (i.e. there is a stronger public/private division), while in Southeast Asia, smiling is often used to cover emotional pain or embarrassment.  Perhaps the key to unlocking the nuances of smiling lie in the difference between a “Duchenne” smile, or authentic smile, and a contrived one. In a contrived smile, your lips turn upward, but little happens around your eyes. When you form an authentic smile, your lips turn upward AND your eyes crinkle around the outside as a muscle called the orbicularis oculi is activated. The interesting thing is that the orbicularis oculi is an involuntary muscle - in other words, you can’t fake an authentic smile.
Julia Roberts demonstrates the differences between a forced smile and a Duchenne smile
Some cultures have embedded this wisdom into their social mores. The Japanese, for example, have been found to rate a smile's trustworthiness by looking at the eyes unlike Americans, who look mainly at the mouth. Duchenne smiles are correlated with living longer, higher marital satisfaction, faster recover from grief-inducing events, and with making people more likely to want to cooperate with you compared to “fake” smiles. 
So maybe it's alright for Bulgarians to look up to the American smile, but hopefully it is the authentic smiles that will catch on rather than the superficial smiles we might find ourselves assuming on a daily basis. But I have to say that in their homes and with their friends, I have seen many wonderful “Bulgarian smiles” - making me wonder how different we really are when you throw away the superficial stuff...… 
I'll put my Aunt Slavka's smile on par with an American smile anyday!
Roman Forum - Plovdiv

In the end, there is no doubt that lots of genuine smiles were flying around during Ryan's visit. We took a wonderful trip to Plovdiv together and explored the city’s ancient ruins. We toured the Zagorka Brewery and sampled their live, unpasteurized beer right from the tap. They enjoyed our smiles so much that they let us stay in the tasting room an extra hour and a half - resulting in a very happy tour indeed! We took Ryan to the ancient city of Nessebar on the Black Sea Coast and introduced him to our hospitable family in the port town of Burgas (see picture above of Ryan with Aunt Slavka). Ryan was a wonderful guest - trying all the different foods we offered him while giving us great tips on his travels around Europe. He heads off to Istanbul next and we wish him much luck! 

To see some highlights of our time with Ryan (along with captions), click the thumbnails below or click here to view all the photos on snapfish. Notes that you can only view the slideshow on our website ( - it probably won't show up if you received this post by e-mail.