Danny Heitman’s “At Random” column: Mayes sings praises of Louisiana

We’re about a month away from vacation season, the time when we pack our bags, mull over itineraries and seek out places more colorful or interesting than the ones we inhabit the rest of the year.

But maybe, when we hit the road this summer, on the hunt for something grander or more sublime, we’ll be leaving behind a place that is, in its own way, every bit as worthy of our attention as the tourist spots somewhere else.

And maybe it’s the simple act of attention, rather than the change of scenery, that has the real potential to help us see something new.

All of this comes to mind with the arrival of “Under Magnolia,” Frances Mayes’ new book about her Southern childhood just after World War II. About Mayes, you already know. She became an international literary celebrity several years ago with the publication of “Under the Tuscan Sun,” the story of how she moved to Italy, restored an ancient villa and found a life of romantic diversion among the warm-hearted souls of the Mediterranean.

Mayes’ Italian travelogue filled millions of readers with admiration — and more than a little bit of envy.

Who wouldn’t, after all, feel full of possibility while sipping wine on a Tuscan terrace?

But despite its exotic locale, “Under the Tuscan Sun” wasn’t really about some quality of revelation available only to residents of Tuscany. Its true theme concerned what can happen when you slow down enough to look at a life and a landscape, regardless of where you are.

That message also rests at the heart of “Under Magnolias,” which chronicles Mayes’ decision to make a second home in North Carolina, not too far from the small Georgia town where she grew up.

Mayes missed the South, which she compares favorably with Tuscan culture. “The complex interconnections of family and friends, the real caring for one another, the incessant talk, emphasis on ancestors, the raucous humor, the appreciation of the bizarre, the storytelling, the fatalism, the visiting, the grand occasions — in both Tuscany and the South these traits offer an elaborate continuity for solitary individuals,” Mayes tells readers.

Just where did Mayes get her understanding that a place could stir your senses? She suggests in her new book that New Orleans played a part.

During her college days, she had a boyfriend in the city, and she writes with affection about enjoying the night life until sunrise:

“Just at dawn we drive to the river and Paul and I walk along the levee. Mythic river, the ruined plantations with oak alleys … the brown swirling color of an old meandering looping wide river.”

That’s Frances Mayes musing on the South at large, and Louisiana in particular. It’s nice to be reminded, as travel season looms, that some special places are just beyond the window.