Traveling the world, one beautiful moment at a time

Francesca Street, CNNPublished 20th February 2018
(CNN) — What's your definition of a beautiful moment?
Is it time spent with family, or a solitary walk? A major life event, or an everyday triumph?
Blogger Janne Willems finds all these instances beautiful -- and she would know. Willems travels the world searching for perfect moments. The Dutch native approaches strangers, hands them an index card and asks them to draw or write about a moment that touched them.
"One day I just got into a Dutch train and I started to ask people to draw beautiful moments," Willems tells CNN Travel. "And they lighted up, they teared up, they became happier, and they started talking to each other, which on Dutch trains they normally don't do. So then I was sold."
Since then, Willems has traveled to four continents and 30 countries -- and counting -- collecting drawings for her project, Seize Your Moments.
"I decided I am going to travel the world, my goal is 1,000 beautiful moments per continent," she says.

Forging connections

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Willems has traveled to four continents and 30 countries -- collecting drawings for her project. Pictured here: Willems, right, approaching a stranger in Melbourne.
Courtesy Janne Willems/Seize Your Moments
Inspiration for the project came from Willems' own life. For many years she has kept track of her own wonderful moments via journals and sketch books.
"It helped me through some difficult times, and it made me much happier," she explains. "So then I was wondering, if this helps for me, does it also work for others -- and how do their beautiful moments look like?"
For two years, Willems confined the project to Dutch trains. She got a diverse range of reactions and responses: "They were surprised," she says. "But they almost always liked the question and more than half of the people actually started drawing."
When she took the project global -- Willems elicited a similar response.
Approaching people everywhere from Australia to Macedonia, Willems was struck by the common humanity of the moments she collected.
"One of the most important themes is other people: so friendship, love, family, they're by far the biggest groups," says Willems.
Other recurring motifs are nature and leisure.
"A lot of the moments take place in leisure time, which also makes you wondering why are we working so much?" she reflects.

Joy and sorrow

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This pastime has become Willems' full-time job. Pictured here: One of Willems' subjects, from Cambodia, depicted himself watching the moon with his girlfriend.
Courtesy Janne Willems/Seize Your Moments
Willems also stresses that the beautiful moments aren't always happy -- an early encounter on a Dutch train epitomized the multifaceted nature of these snippets of time:
"This was the first one that made me cry, because at that time I had only done it a couple of times in Dutch trains," says Willems.
Willems had approached a young boy on the train, who handed her the sketch before he got off at the next stop. The drawing depicted a woman in a hospital bed, with a man standing over her, crying.
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Willems stresses that the beautiful moments aren't always happy. Pictured here: A moving moment from the Netherlands.
Courtesy Janne Willems/Seize Your Moments
"And the woman in the hospital bed said, 'I don't want to go home with you, it's too hard on you, I love you too much,'" describes Willems. "I had to cry, because not only was this such a beautiful and touching moment, I also realized that this boy understood the nature of the project."
"Beautiful moments are those double-sided ones, and he chose to share this with me and what an incredible gift," says Willems.
The blogger, who now collects moments as a full-time job, sees her job as an incredible privilege -- an insight into ordinary lives across the globe.
Willems gives talks, runs workshops, visits schools -- and continues to approach strangers around the world.

Breaching divides

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Willems says common themes in the drawings are people, nature and leisure. Pictured here: Willems, right, approaching a stranger in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Courtesy Janne Willems/Seize Your Moments
Dutch-born Willems is now based in the US -- which she visited for the first time during the height of election season in 2016.
"I'm now living in the States, and that's because that country really gripped me," says Willems.
She was struck by the sense of division:
"I met the most amazing people in the States [...] but they don't always trust each other, especially not people from the other group, and there are lots of groups in the States," she explains.
"So the project suddenly wasn't only about making people happier, but about bringing people together."
In low-income neighborhoods in Chicago and Dallas, Willems was struck by interactions with young people at schools -- who questioned why she was kind to them.
"The question you should ask yourself is "why aren't we kind?" We are not," she says. "That's the question we have to ask -- and why were those girls thinking that their stories shouldn't matter?"
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Willems was deeply moved by the stories of children in low-income neighborhoods in the US. Pictured here: A child's beautiful moment in Englewoods, Chicago.
Courtesy Janne Willems/Seize Your Moments
"It's so important that kids like that with backstories like that, who go through difficult times, that they realize that there are beautiful moments and they can take the power out of them."
"So I'm so grateful I can do this work in schools now."
There are other specific instances that stand out to Willems -- they range from the life-changing to the everyday.
In New Zealand, she met Collin -- who drew the moment he opened a Father's Day card from his formerly estranged daughter: the first he ever received. "It was so beautiful," she says.
In a small village in the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal, a man called Bishnu depicts a butterfly coming out of his cocoon. In Australia, a woman and her grandson, who live in the Australian bush, drew the bananas that grow in that area of the country.
In Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Willems met a young girl who shared her fears of being shy. Willems encouraged her to come out of her shell -- asking her to approach strangers for the Seize Your Moments project.

Future plans

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Pictured here: Helen, right, and her grandson live in the Australian Bush and drew the bush bananas in the landscape.
Courtesy Janne Willems/Seize Your Moments
Willems remains committed to charting these snapshots in time across the world -- she has yet to visit Africa and South America and hopes to in the near future.
"I also want to go into prisons because that's a setting we normally don't think of places with beautiful moments and I think they are there," says Willems.
Ultimately, Willems wants to promote trust and connection -- across continents and cultural divides.
"You just have to say I start by trusting you [...] as long as I start, I'm sure of one thing and that is the other person will start too," she says.