Nashville: No Expectations

When staying in a vacation rental for the first time, all travelers have expectations. Expectations can range from good to bad to accurate to totally unfair. But whether we like it or not, those first expectations play an important role in the overall experience. If our expectations are met or exceeded, then we’re leave feeling thrilled. If they’re not met, then we’re typically left feeling disappointed, sometimes even deceived. And the same is true about destinations! Before arriving to Nashville, my expectations were high: world class country music, dazzling barbecue, and the Tennessee Titans, but I didn’t know a whole lot more than that! My good friend Mary, was going to be in the area and I convinced her to fly in and join me in seeing how those expectations would be met! Suffice it to say, Nashville threw us both a travel curveball.

When booking a vacation rental, communication with the owner or manager is so important: after all, these are real people’s homes and welcoming strangers into that can is such a personal and courageous thing! I arrived at 9pm to find the great John Oden waiting for me in the doorway of Heidtke House, his 3-bedroom contemporary ranch home located in a suburb about 15 minutes from downtown. I chose John’s rental because of his reviews, all of which talked about the home’s great value, and relaxed residential neighborhood. I’m not sure whether it was John's southern hospitality or his fatherly way of carrying himself (which is strange seeing as though he doesn’t have any kids), but the moment I arrived, I felt like I was at home…only this home had two bottles of warm sake and a beautifully hand-written note to welcome me inside. John asks all guests for their favorite beverage prior to arriving and gifts it to them upon arrival. This is one of those easy little gestures that make guests feel special: it also sets the tone of the relationship showing generosity and thought. With two other vacation rentals, a handful of long term properties that he manages, and a full time job in EdTech, John doesn’t meet all his guests in person — only when his schedule permits, which is about 50% of the time. So these little touches are his bread and butter costs of doing business.

ELLEN SAYS “YOU ARE REAL” The next morning, I was so excited to meet John’s wife Ellen, who works at Vanderbilt university in software development: originally from China, Ellen is almost uncannily in her element in Tennessee: she’s open, curious, and she smiles a lot — these are traits that make any foreigner successful anywhere they go. I invited my hosts out for lunch, which is such an easy thing to do with vacation rentals: invite your host or someone on their staff out for lunch or coffee and soak up all the advice you can. And choice was International Market, a deceptively generic name for quite the unusual culinary establishment. The atmosphere of International Market is what would happen if an Asian grandmother took over your middle school cafeteria and just started ordering everyone what to eat and how to eat it: wooden booths, paintings of elephants and buddhas adorning the walls, a copy machine! And then there’s the owner — you'll hear her before you see her — PATTY SCREAMS SOMETHING FUNNY. Patty Mintz is one of those entrepreneurs who you meet and almost immediately want to root for. Having opened the restaurant 43 years ago, Patty’s business became something of a landmark for John and Ellen: an institution that was as much a part of their weekly lives as any business could be. We enjoyed huge plates of eggplant and chili, huge fried shrimp, rice noodles and mango with sticky rice. INSERT PATI FOOD MONTAGE But John and Ellen’s choice to bring me here wasn’t without some nostalgia: International Market would be closing this year: INSERT PATTY EXPLAINING “43 YEARS HONEY” Meeting Patty and her daughter Mau, seeing their obsession with watching people experience Thai food, and realizing that this monumental project was nearing the end of it’s time got a bit emotional for me: that feeling we get with small final gestures that benchmark the story of something so big. From the moment I left International Market, I told myself I’d come back before they close the doors for good.

A day before I arrived, I emailed John to ask if he had any suggestions for a place to get a traditional Nashville haircut. “You’ve gotta be kidding me,” John said. “I am literally sitting in my barber’s chair at this very moment. I’ll make the reservation.” So Mary and I rolled into Moose, a relatively unsuspecting home located smack dab in the middle of Music Row, arguably our nation’s most important musical thoroughfare. Music Row is another Nashville curiosity: it’s arguably the most cutting edge production studio hub in the US behind LA, and yet it looks totally unassuming: like pretty much a normal residential street with subtle signs that speak great volumes in music. When we arrived we were ushered into a waiting room and served  whiskey on the rocks while we waited for April Dixon, the owner, who moved here from California with one simple and ambitious plan: create Nashville’s most unique barber shop. Together with her business partners, mom and dad, April took the family business from zero to sixty in less than 10 years. And to most people, starting a business with your family would be insane! Especially one that involves liquor and straight edge razors. But the journey has really solidified April’s appreciation for the basics in any relationship business or otherwise: communication, respect, and good old-fashioned hard work.

John and Ellen are spiritual people: they go to church once a week with John’s parents, who live about 20 minutes away. So when included in the Heitdke House traveler suggestions was the opportunity to help out at an initiative pioneered by John’s father, John Sr., I signed up almost immediately. Like many American cities, the streets of Nashville have a real challenge with homelessness and John Sr, together with a visionary named Father ____, chose to try and solve this challenge with a Room at the Inn: a weekly program that picks up 36 gentlemen from the streets of downtown Nashville and ushers them into a safe place for the night. A warm meal, fresh laundry service, clean beds, and showers are followed by a big hearty breakfast in the morning and a paper lunch to send each guest on their way. In exchange for the free service, Room at the Inn asks their guests to commit to better choices, professional training, and the accountability to solve their own problems — the kinds of life choices that can improve anyone’s life really. The experience moved me greatly: it was a private and profound part of the Oden’s life that so perfectly fits in the scope of a meaningful vacation. Room at the Inn recognizes the psychology of homelessness, and aims to kick-start these men’s positive juju again in with a healthy mixture of positivity and practical solutions. This experience made my visit to Nashville deeper and more meaningful — it gave me a new view of homelessness, and a newfound appreciation for everything I have.   

When envisioning what Nashville might look like prior to arrival, Mary and I assumed there’d be some sort of country music district and maybe a cosmopolitan downtown. But what I didn’t expect was a handful of extremely dynamic satellite neighborhoods, each thriving on their own yet in a united Nashvillian sort of way. Take Belmont, the neighborhood beside where John and Ellen live where you can still get $2 draft beers in plastic glasses and plenty of snark from the local bartender Amber. Or Historic Franklin where an old movie theater, newly-installed holiday lights, and blocks worth of mom and pop shops evoke a Nashville of old. Or 12 South, a hip little neighborhood where Mary and I bought vegan cupcakes from a pink automated ATM. Each neighborhood seemed so healthy and alive: and while many of the Uber drivers I’d meet expressed concern that the cost of living was encroaching on too expensive, they also all possessed a certain come-to-grips understanding for Nashville's growth. Everyone I met also loved Nashville desperately: that is a glue that seems to hold this rapidly changing city together.

One of the coolest neighborhoods I visited was called East Nashville. Only in the past 10 years has East Nashville become recognized as an appealing place to live. It was by a roaring fire pit at a place called the Urban Cowboy that I met up with Kelli Reeves, an Inner Circle member and the mother-of-two-genius behind the Slightly Off Retreat: a nearby vacation rental that challenges the way one defines distinguished hospitality. Kelly invited us to check out her pad, one of the most curious and unpredictable lodging options you’ll find. Kelly lit up her amphitheater —literally a hand-made stage she built at the bottom of a sloped backyard as an excuse to host her favorite local artists. Kelly is so plugged into the music scene of East Nashville, that we couldn’t help  but follow her lead to a proudly-self-proclaimed-divebar called 5 South, where, in typically unpredictable Nashville fashion, an incredible band was playing for us and a few locals. I ordered a glass of moonshine, which was almost as good as the hooch I had in Blue Ridge (!!!) And I felt like I was in on a travel secret that many people had yet to discover. Our last stop of the evening was Nashville in a bottle: a power punch example of how the people and the culture of Nashville is not only confident and deeply rooted, but also young and innovative. Your local American Legion chapter has nothing on American Legion Post 82: we arrived just when things were getting started and while the majority of my country dancing took place off screen, the music was outstanding. The mood in this place was approachable: like you could just be yourself without anyone judging you. It’s Nashvilles attitude in a drop.

In line with my big expectations for Nashville as a city were my assumptions of its food. The obvious mistake was in assuming Nashville’s only about barbecue. Which in retrospect is silly -- to assume any city is defined by any single type of cuisine. But it’s all I knew! So to see some broader down home cooking, we went to Monelle’s — the brainchild of a Michael King, Canadian transplant who moved to Nashville and pretty much took the authentic food scene by storm. Meals at Monelle’s are around one big wooden table and you’re asked to share family style plates of white beans, braised beef, hot chicken, and mind-blowing turnip greens with your neighbors: a pretty foolproof way to breach your comfort zone and find that delicious serendipity with total strangers — it’s something only visits to new places — places outside your wheelhouse -- can bring out. Monelle's probably added on 10 pounds of it. But man was it was worth it!

On our last night, Mary and I wanted to take advantage of our rental and host a little dinner to show our appreciation to the two generations of Odens. We even got to meet John’s brother who was in town for the holidays. Heidtke House’s backyard was the picture-perfect setting, complete with the brisk Nashville air, for a barbecue dinner: fall-off-the-bone ribs, brisket, and my new addiction — collard greens spiked with vinegar. SHOW CASKAI Reflecting on what made our Nashville experience so special, Mary and I thought back to the day we arrived, with admittedly high expectations but of the obvious stuff — the stuff you see on TV. And like most people who visit Nashville, we certainly got to experience that stuff. But on top of it, we were exposed to a second, totally unexpected layer to this place. In choosing to stay with John and Ellen, we got to know their Nashville: a city, a people, a style through their personal lens. That kind of expectation would have simply been impossible to predict: and this might be the greatest contribution that vacation rentals make to the local tourism economy. I snuck out just before dinner back to International Market, and convinced Patty to let me frame a piece of her restaurant’s history — one that’s some coming to an end — and gift it to my hosts who cherish Patty so much. Our visit was a masterclass on the power of hospitality. How the most successful people and businesses aren’t obviously predictable at all: In the end, we learned that this X factor, is what makes a vacation almost guaranteed to be great. 

Stuart Hooper