Marina Mengelberg is a Dutch-born Italian tour guide who lives in the heart of Tuscany. My friend, business partner, and co-collaborator Wyatt Waters and I met her when we first started leading tours in Tuscany. She is a very close friend who tours us through four locations – the medieval towered city of San Gimignano, a behind-the-scenes tour in the city of Siena, The Uffizi Museum in Florence and an outdoor morning walking tour through a very historic section of the Tuscan countryside near our villa. Mengelberg is a hard-working single mom who is intelligent and charming, and all of the 325 people who have traveled with us over the past three years love her.

As a reward for her efforts translating recipes and being our boots-on-the-ground assistant for an upcoming book project, I flew her, her son and her daughter over to the United States for a two-week excursion through our South. Mengelberg had been to the U.S. and heard all about the South through many of our guests. But, as with most Europeans who say they have been stateside, they have the same answer when I ask them, “Have you been to the USA?” I always follow that up with, “Let me guess – New York, Miami, Los Angeles.”

“Yes!” they say.

“You haven’t been to America,” I say. “Come down South and see the ‘real’ America.”

So, I took the job as tour guide seriously, and wanted to cover as many bases as I could. They flew into New Orleans, and we spent the first two nights at our place down there. On the way to our apartment from the airport, we stopped off at Susan Spicer’s restaurant, Rosedale, and enjoyed a perfect welcome-to-New-Orleans dinner.

Day one we hit the Audubon Zoo with the kids, witnessed them eating their first po-boys at Domelise’s in Uptown, and took in the aquarium, before finishing off the day with dinner at Mr. B’s and a haunted night tour of the French Quarter. We visited the New Orleans Museum of Art the next day before heading home to Hattiesburg where we hit all of our restaurants over a three-day period, and visited the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art in Laurel, and took in a couple of movies.

The event I had planned for months was a surprise party for Mengelberg at our house, in which I invited everyone who has traveled with us to Tuscany. We pulled it off perfectly. I told Mengelberg that we were having to host a political fundraiser, and that my son would take them to the movie during the function. Over 110 people showed up, some from as far away as Texas and Alabama – which tells you something about the adoration our guests have for Mengelberg – and we all gathered in the backyard for a rousing “Surprise!” when they returned from the movie. Bill Ellison and Temperance Babcock set up by the pool and played old-time string music (and some by Mengelberg’s favorite American artist, Alison Krauss) until the night grew late and 1980s dance music replaced the violin.

The next day I took the Italians to Jackson to see the Wyatt Waters Gallery in Clinton. I arranged for tours of two of the three governor’s offices, and a tour of the Capitol, and we had an excellent lunch at Babalu. That evening we returned to Hattiesburg and ate at my favorite barbecue/steak dive joint, Donanelli’s. They loved it.

On our sixth day we headed down to the Florida Panhandle for several days at the beach. We did all of our usual beach meals – I always have to eat lunch at my alma mater, Harbor Docks, and we had boiled shrimp at the house a couple of nights – but the fun surprise-find was Redd’s Fueling Station.

Redd’s is a dive bar in the back of a convenience store on 30A in the Blue Mountain Beach area. It’s owned and operated by a woman named Redd who sings while bartending. It was a blast. Redd put on a show, and kept us in stitches, in front – and behind – the bar. She only sings three nights a week, so check the website. But it’s a fun time for all. Mengelberg was in awe that there were so many songs that the entire bar knew by heart, and sang along.

The last two days were spent back in New Orleans where we hit Brigtsen’s (my favorite New Orleans restaurant for the past 32 years), where they got to meet Chef Frank, and had a classic New Orleans brunch at Brennan’s. Our final meal on the final night was at Paladar 511 in our building, always a treat.

I am used to touring people around Italy, and for the past year have spent some time touring people through Mississippi on our Magical Mississippi Tour, but I have only toured our friends from Italy in this area one other time. Things look differently when I am looking at them through other people’s eyes. Mostly those things are positive. I am proud of my hometown and the areas that surround it, and Marina Mengelberg and her two lovely children fell in love with it, too.

Sometimes we can’t see the forest for the pine trees. This is a great place, with wonderful food, and awesome people. We are blessed. Let’s not forget it.

ROBERT ST. JOHN is a restaurateur, chef and author. Find his recipe for Marinated Crab Claws at robertstjohn.com.

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