Little Adventures, One Postcard at a Time

Today’s Guest Blog “Travel Memories” series post is from my dear friend and fellow travel-writer, Lila Fox Ermel.  

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She not only runs a luxury travel agency, and writes an incredible travel blog, The Constant Tourist,  but she makes many of her recommendations based on her and her husband Chad’s own amazing explorations and adventures. 

Lila travels with the greatest of gusto. And I’m delighted to share with you her heartfelt essay of why one of the best things about traveling – is mailing post cards back to the waiting loved ones at home.  

Take it away, Lila!

I’ve always admired the way Gina shares her love of travel with her daughter, Lulu. Incorporating travel into every aspect of her family’s lifestyle. Love it, love it. Children are such little sponges, ready to soak up every experience that is cast in front of them. For this, I’m a huge fan of exposing young children to various cultures. Whether you’re a parent or not you can share the magic and intrigue of travel with children. The simplest, coolest way that I know how is the handwritten postcard.

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My grandparents were kind of non-traditional, sailing around the world in their sailboat. Growing up, my brother and I would receive postcards from their travels. We’d see them during the holidays and then they’d be off on another adventure. Some would say I missed out on a typical grandparent-grandchild relationship, but the relationship that I did have taught me from a young age that there is a big, big world out there.

As I transitioned from child to teenager, the postcards from my grandmother kept coming. They became even more special, probably because of my maturity and ability to understand the gesture. Whether she knew it or not at the time, she was fueling my desire to see the world.

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So during my very first trip overseas, I remembering rounding a corner to come upon a boutique with a postcard carousel tipped out into my path as if to say, “Hello. You were looking for something?” I grabbed a stack of those cards and early the next morning, I sat in the breakfast room of our hotel next to a little open window overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea.

In between nibbling pastries, I scribbled postcards to friends and family back home, wanting so badly to put into words what I was seeing, feeling, smelling, tasting, and experiencing. I wanted what I was writing to entice, the way that my grandmother’s words enticed me to explore faraway places.

 

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Words can be powerful like that. That was nearly ten years ago.

Today, postcards – especially postcards to my young nieces and nephews – are just part of the deal. Also part of the deal is a special card to the grandmother that inspired me to travel in the first place.

If you have children of your own, the next time you’re all on vacation encourage them to write postcards to their friends back home. If you don’t have kids, drop a few hand-written postcards in the mail to your nieces, nephews, even your best friend’s children. It really doesn’t take much time out of your vacation, and you never know who you may be inspiring. To the point, my ten-year-old niece recently told me that she keeps the postcards I’ve sent her in a “special box.”

Enticing the next generation to explore faraway places.

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Lila Fox is owner of New Orleans-based Constant Tourist Travel, a travel agency specializing in luxurious travel experiences and accommodations worldwide. Follow her on Facebook @Constant Tourist Travel & on Twitter @lilathetourist.

Thanks so much, Lila! I am sitting here at typing at my dining room table with a postcard Lulu just received from my mom – her “Gramma Sheila”  – from Hawaii – where my parents spend every February.  We, too, save our postcards. Such a simple thing, midst a world of tweeting, skyping and instant messaging, that can last and inspire for a life time.

And for more travel and life inspirations, give yourself – and friends!! – a smile by ordering my new book, “Because I’m Small Now and You Love Me.”  It’s adventures in parenting and life-overseas! Because we’re all travelers. 

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If you have a travel memory or philosophy to share – please write to me and submit your guest blog post at GinaLondon@gmail.com.  I look forward to it!

Until next time, Baci, tutti!

Gina

 

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Guest blog series: “Travel Memories” #4 A Real Mystery in Istanbul

Irish author Laurence O’Bryan is a noted crime and thriller author and today’s guest blogger. 

His first novel, “The Istanbul Puzzle,” was released in 2012 and was shortlisted for the Irish crime novel in that same year. The Irish Independent said this: ‘This stylish conspiracy thriller is a Turkish delight. O’Bryan’s compelling debut thriller combines plenty of stirring action with fascinating historical detail.’

I know I’m thrilled to have him write the following mystery essay for you to ponder – and for becoming my friend. 

Now, let’s travel to Istanbul – and to the iconic Hagia Sophia.

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Hagia Sophia is one of the most important buildings in the world. It has been in continuous use since the seventh century.

No other building has been the headquarters of both Sunni Islam, the seat of its last Caliphate, and before that the seat of a major Christian denomination, Orthodox Christianity. Hagia Sophia, the seat of two great religions, was turned into a museum bythe first President of the Republic of Turkey, Kemal Atatürk, in 1935.

Hagia Sophia was named after Sophia, Holy Wisdom, a Greek Orthodox concept that reaches back to a time before Christianity. Its present incarnation is largely the structure dedicated on the December 27th 537AD. The purpose of this post however is not to reiterate a litany of facts about Hagia Sophia, but to explore one of its greatest mysteries; what lies beneath it?

And there is a real mystery here. This is the only building designed as a great church not to have extensive and well-explored underground areas, whether they be crypts, burial chambers or catacombs.

The original Hagia Sophia church, the present building is the third, was inaugurated on the site of the current building on the 15th February 360. It was the largest church in the new capital of the Roman Empire, Constantinople.

Both the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, constructed at a similar time, in 326-330, and Old St. Peter’s in Rome, constructed 330-360, have original and extensive underground areas.

And the underground areas are the most sacred parts of these buildings. It seems odd to me that there are no underground areas that the public is aware of, aside from a few drainage tunnels, under Hagia Sophia.

So did the famous designers of Hagia Sophia, physicist Isidore of Miletus and mathematician Anthemius of Tralles, (known for constructing flood defences) simply forget to design underground levels for Hagia Sophia? Or is there another explanation, were the underground areas in Hagia Sophia hidden?

The Black Death was one of the most destructive epidemics ever to strike humanity. It raged in Europe around the year 1350. Constantinople was one of the largest cities on the European continent. It fell victim to the Black Death early, in 1347.

One of the first places to be used to bury victims, especially senior members of the clergy and the aristocracy would have been in any underground crypts in the Hagia Sophia complex. The complex included the hospital of Sampson, where some underground areas have been revealed within metres of Hagia Sophia.

I suggest therefore that any original crypts under Hagia Sophia may have been used for the burial of prominent plague victims. Such crypts would then have been sealed up, for obvious reasons.

A proper modern investigation, a geophysical survey using ground penetrating radar and the latest magnetometer equipment would likely reveal significant underground areas at Hagia Sophia. So far the Turkish authorities have not permitted such a project.

It is true that there has been some limited small-scale explorations under Hagia Sophia, a few narrow tunnels and cisterns have been discovered, but isn’t it time for the whole area to be properly explored and documented? The publicity, and increase in tourists alone, would justify the costs. What is everyone afraid of? Hagia Sophia has been a museum for seventy five years.

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Thank you so much, Laurence. It is indeed fascinating to learn that the area under the Hagia Sophia has never been extensively explored.  And to think that when I visited it, way back in 1996, all I could think of was how much the inside of the great former mosque stank of feet – due to the fact that visitors had to remove their shoes before entering. (Note: A wonderful reader who lives in Turkey, just pointed out I made a mistake – You don’t have to take off your shoes at the H.S.  – that’s the Blue Mosque across the street. So my apologies at my poor memory!) 

To read more about mysteries in Istanbul, you can purchase Laurence’s first book by checking out your local bookstore, Amazon.com or going to www.lpobryan.com.  Laurence O’Bryan’s second book in his on-going series of mysteries, “The Jerusalem Puzzle” has recently been released and, some say, even more thrilling than the first! 

For those of you who have ever traveled to Turkey, did you visit the Hagia Sophia? What did you think?  If you have a travel story you’d like to share, mysterious or not, please write to me at GinaLondon@gmail.com. I’d love to hear. 

Safe travels and happy writing.

Love,

Gina

Mardi Gras or Carnevale – however you say it, it’s a good time!

Call it Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras in the United States, here in Italy, I’ve learned to call it “Carnevale” and it isn’t just one day- the parties, floats , costumes and confetti go on for weeks – culminating in the giorno grosso!

Okay, we’re not in Venice, which knocks it out of the Carnevale park each year, just check out the crowd for this year’s festivities.

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But here in Arezzo, we have had our own wonderful happenings.  Museums and theaters have had special events, and every department store, in which you can’t find a costume to save a little trick-or-treater’s life on Halloween, is now festooned with brightly colored super heroes, royalty and fairy tale characters.

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And on Saturday, Scotty and I opened our “castle” doors to our first soiree – a mixture of Carnevale and New Orleans-style Mardi Gras as some of our friends actually wore masks from Venice.

Which one is me? meow!
Which one is me? meow!

And my friend Heather baked her first ever- King Cake, complete with tinting the sugar herself as Italy doesn’t get quite so crazy with their sprinkles.  It tasted delicious!

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And I whipped up some spicy Jambalaya – albeit with Italian, not Andouille, sausage!

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The grown-ups and the kids all had a terrific time – I think I’ll be finding bits of confetti around here until July.

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But what really knocked me out is the way Lulu’s Italian pre-school went all out for Carnevale. Now, this was a party!

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The recreation room at Saint Agnese church was over-run with pink and lavender princesses.

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Lulu and her best friend, Allegra, were both Rapunzel!

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Complete with matching pink tights that they just had to show me!

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There were ninjas, little ponies, Minnie mouses (mice?!) and spidermen.

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My favorite was this homemade toddler-sized Arlecchino costume. Terrific!

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Alecchnio, Pulcinella and his other masked Commedia dell’Arte buddies were even found on the cookies on the gigantic spread.

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And forget about the sausage in my Jambalaya, this pre-school party featured the big-daddy of all Italian pork specialties: porchetta!! (Which, if you don’t know, happens to be a suckling pig deboned, stuffed with its own liver and spices and roasted! – more about that in my new book, Because I’m Small Now and You Love Me)

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Everybody ate.  Grown-ups drank red wine. Children ran and played and pelted each other with streamers or filati di stele.  And, with the professional DJs playing oldies like “YMCA” and latest global hits like “Gangnam Style” – everyone danced!

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Then, perhaps after a little more wine, the grownups started in with the karaoke.  All the songs were in Italian, until some bright bird suggested since I was the only American there, I should sing something in English.  Well, I did.   Blessedly, there is no photographic evidence of said spectacle that can be posted here!

Wherever you are, Whatever your age! Happy Mardi Gras today! And Buon Carnevale!

p.s. The song was Gloria Gaynor’s fabulous disco-hit “I Will Survive”  – okay, the less said about it, the better!

Ciao, tutti!

Love, g

Guest Blog Series: “Travel Memories” #3 Tomato Road Goes on Forever, and the Party Never Ends

Attention everyone, like a vibrant and spicy jambalaya, you’re in for a special treat!

Today’s guest blogger is my dear friend Joey Bunch.  Former CNN colleague and current Denver Post reporter extraordinaire – he is, in fact, a man much more compelling than any collection of biographical factoids can tell. 

Joey Bunch, Denver Post Reporter Extraordinaire
Joey Bunch, Denver Post Reporter Extraordinaire

His story of childhood in American’s deep south juxtaposed with his travels now as a reporter for a major daily is vividly funny, thought-provoking and poignant. 

Joey may be a professional writer, but he’s also a natural-born story-teller. 

Take it away! – Joey Bunch. Wandering shepherd, journalist, bon vivant – friend.

“Don’t put all the good ones in one basket,” my grandfather said as
the summer night fell on Alabama when I was 7 years old. “Give
everybody some.” The old man raised an eyebrow and smiled with one
corner of his mouth, winking with his entire face as we stocked the
truck to sell tomatoes in nearby towns the next morning. Five big
tomatoes fit the small wooden baskets that cost a dollar apiece, and
10 in the $2 baskets. I turned blemishes and flat spots toward the
bottom, the neater, the rosier, the better. I think of that planning
sometimes today when I’m packing a bag for work trip as a newspaper
reporter or my latest expedition in life.

Joey, Granny and Pop,  And yes, the dog was named "Lassie"
Joey, Granny and Pop, And yes, the dog was named “Lassie”

Sand Mountain tomatoes were regionally famous — grown on hot days and
cool nights in the rich sandy soil left by glaciers as they plowed
toward the Gulf of Mexico 300 million years ago, a journey from the
time reptiles first slithered onto land to that night, when the fruit
was readied to leave.  Our route took us to stores, curb markets and
restaurants in larger towns that had those businesses. Ours didn’t. We
had one traffic light, and it blinked continuously yellow at the
crossroads of Alabama Highway 75 and the nameless two-lane blacktop
that connected farms and people I knew like the string in a popcorn
garland at Christmas.

These were the trips that made me a vagabond soul. Going somewhere —
anywhere — to meet strangers and do business was adventure come to
life for a boy who only knew the world through a black-and-white
television screen. We left before dawn. Pop said daylight was his
favorite part of the day. The schedule put the working man ahead —
the early bird and the worm — with a lagniappe of a colored sky most
of the world chose to sleep through. We knew things about the day that
other people didn’t.

Pop had a favorite ritual. He would cut off the engine at the crest of
Sand Mountain. “Saving gas,” he would announce, pitching his voice
like a sideshow barker, as the powerless pickup coasted down the
mountainside. “We’re saving so much money we’ll be rich by supper.”
Sometimes he’d switch off the headlights, too. I clutched the
dashboard’s padding and pretended to be terrified as we sailed through
the darkness. We giggled louder and stretched out the “whoa” in
harmony around the deadly hairpin curve of Snake Gap Road.

I was endlessly curious about the people we met on the route. Where
did they go after we left? What did they do with our tomatoes? Did
they get different cartoons on their TV, and if so could I watch their
TV?

Traveling, to me, has always been about the people in small pockets of
the world and how they live – not the commuters in airplanes. Freeways
seem anything but free.  We climb inside a four-door rented rocket
ship and fire ourselves through strange lands, crossing what might as
well be empty space. We hope for satellite radio, so we won’t get
bored with AM stations with its Swap Shop or Eleanor’s weekly report
about what’s new at the library, too bored with the towns to learn
what’s the same, what’s different, or which cartoons are on their TVs.

Once on a Navajo reservation in Arizona, I stopped at a Tom Thumb
convenience store.  The  air-conditioning kissed my face as I swung
open the glass door to go inside. A B major chord thumped out
Hollaback Girl” on the store’s muzak. Everyone was Native American
with raven hair and dark skin, except for me, a twangy Southerner with
fine brown hair and a sunburned nose. The store looked exactly like
the Tom Thumb near my old house in Pensacola, Florida. The Navajo
clerk wore the same green smock as the guy from Gulf Breeze who had
sold me coffee on the way to work. I pulled a Diet Coke from the
cooler, turned around and realized, “My God, we are one world.”

Joey at the Grand Canyon
Joey at the Grand Canyon

Still today, I try to start trips before sunrise, wherever I am in the
world. It was tough that summer in Alaska, when the sun was up for 20
hours a day. In Mexico, on a long trip down the Baja Peninsula to
punctuate turning 40, I decided on a whim to turn around to go home
one morning outside Guerrero Negro. The rising sun warmed my back on a
vast white beach, as I gazed on the bluest Pacific I can imagine still
today. The surf both thundered and whispered in the tug-of-war with
the sea. I imagined it was the voice of God. I imagined it said a new
day had risen and my life was headed down a different road. The people
in town were friendly. A man asked five pesos, about 50 cents, for a
small watermelon he sold from his truck. I was bearded and a dazed
from a few days outdoors. I cracked open the melon by smashing it on
my knee. The juice hardened on my shin while I gobbled breakfast from
my hands a few feet from its provider. I wondered if he wondered about
me the way I wondered about those people in Alabama. I thought, “My
God, we are one world.”

Joey at the base of Mt. McKinley, Alaska
Joey at the base of Mt. McKinley, Alaska

I don’t believe in this “trip of a lifetime” nonsense. Your lifetime
is the sum of your trips –  people we meet near and far, and the
things we go through. Every trip we leave a little of ourselves and we
take away more. “Don’t put all the good ones in one basket,” my Pop
said. “Give everybody some.”

 Thanks, so much, Joey.  I couldn’t agree more. We all are a sum of our travels, our experiences. I often describe my life as one big patch-work quilt that (hopefully!) just keeps on getting bigger and more colorful!  If you’re out there reading this, and would like to share a travel memory and/or what traveling means to you: please write to me at GinaLondon@Gmail.com 

As my new book, “Because I’m Small Now and You Love Me” illustrates – we’re all travelers – no matter where we go!  

Love to all of us travelers,

Gina

 

Guest blog series “Travel Memories” #2 “Traveled with a teen – and liked it!”

Ciao, tutti!  and welcome to the second edition of my Guest Blog Series: “Travel Memories.” 

Today’s wonderful essay comes from my blog-reader, seasoned traveler and new friend, Kim Ives – an American who creates custom itineraries for world-wide travel experiences – beyond the standard travel guide.  Check out her website! 

Kim also happens to be the mom of two college students (a girl and a boy) – Whew! Here she shares a touching tale of making a lasting memory with her daughter – in London AND in Paris. 

Take it away, Kim! 

My daughter was fifteen and growing up fast. It was time to do something to capture those last moments with her before driving, dating, and college grabbed her attention. Thus, I planned a ten day trip to London and Paris for just the two of us.

Upon arriving in London, we had to do the London Eye first with its magnificent views of the city followed by a leisurely cruise down the Thames River. Dinner was al fresco in Covent Garden amid the buskers and crowds.

Busker in Covent Garden

In the following days, we saw all the sites such as the Tower of London with its dark history alongside its magnificent crown jewels. We saw iconic Big Ben,  the Tower Bridge lift up for a sailing vessel and “Romeo and Juliet” performed at the Globe Theatre. We entered St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, the sites of royal marriages, along with taking an unforgettable tour of Buckingham Palace.

Big Ben in London

We were able to slow down and relax with afternoon tea. This consisted of a pot of tea, small finger sandwiches, scones and small cakes while sitting in some of the fanciest hotels in London. How delightfully British!

Tea in London

Then, it was onto Paris via the Chunnel where you can travel nonstop under the English Channel from downtown London to downtown Paris in just a few short hours.

Paris was a delight. We spent the first evening atop the Eiffel Tower watching the sun set over the city. The local custom is to watch the Tower’s evening light show while having a picnic in the park. We had to try this before we left.

Eiffel Tower

The museums of Paris are unequalled. The Louvre, of course, holds some of the world’s finest and best-known pieces. We said hello to the Mona Lisa, Winged Victory, Venus de Milo and other incredible masterpieces. We followed this with a visit to the Musee d’Orsay which had works by Renoir, Manet, Monet, Degas, and many others. Finally, we visited the home of Rodin which is now a museum and saw “The Thinker.”

Rodin's "The Thinker"

We spent one day visiting the unbelievable Palace of Versailles along with its endless gardens.

Versailles Gardens

Everywhere you looked there was gold, elaborate paintings, and mirrors. The formal gardens are unequaled in their scope and variety which has been maintained since the French Revolution.

Hall of Mirrors-Versailles

Of course a visit to Paris is not complete until you visit Notre Dame. This magnificent church with its stained glass windows, soaring interior and elaborate gargoyles is not a sight to be missed. Its placement on the Île de la Cité in the middle of the Seine makes this the center of Paris.

On trip concluded with a magnificent cruise down the Seine from the Eiffel Tower to theÎle de la Cité. While dining on French specialties such as duck ala orange, foie gras, and chocolate soufflé, we were serenaded by a live quartet. This was the perfect end to an unforgettable trip.

I got to spend ten days with my teenager in two unforgettable cities and that makes these travel memories my best.

Thanks, again, Kim!  Those days will be memories that you and your daughter can share for a lifetime. I hope Lulu and I will also one day be lovely ladies who have tea in London and a picnic in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower together!

In the meantime, as she’s only five-years-old, I’ve chronicled the adventures and conversations we have shared thus-far in my new book, “Because I’m Small and You Love Me” available NOW for pre-order sales in the US and worldwide in just 10 short days on (appropriately) Valentine’s Day! 

Buy my book please!
Buy my book please!

How about you? Do you have a travel memory you’d like to share? With kids in tow or without! Exotic or the backyard!  Email me at GinaLondon@Gmail.com 

With love for all of us travelers, 

Gina

Guest Blog Series: “Travel Memories” – Post #1 from American Strong Woman, Mama Lou!

Today is February 1st – just 14 days until the launch of “Because I’m Small Now and You Love Me” the charming chronicle of conversations and adventures with my four-year-old daughter Lulu.

And in honor of everyone’s life adventures, I am proud today to kick-off my guest blog series: “Travel Memories.” 

First up, an essay from a dynamic woman known as “Mama Lou, American Strong Woman, who “More” magazine placed on its “Fierce List” alongside First Lady Michelle Obama!  

Known for her strength of character as well as her physical prowess, Mama Lou is a wonderful role model -especially for young girls like Lulu, who LOVES her. We were fortunate to host Mama Lou at our home a couple of weeks ago here in Italy before she went off to perform in Germany. 

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Lulu and Mama Lou! Cooking up some healthy cuisine of course!

Now a seasoned world-traveler, here’s her take on one of her first “worldly” vacations:

Take it away, Mama Lou!

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My family didn’t travel much. My parents grew up within ten miles of where they were born and “vacation” meant visiting relatives in nearby states or family reunions, but rarely did it mean new exotic locations, adventure and the unknown. That was for other people.

My parents divorced when I was 11 years old and my dad decided it was time to make some memories. The closest big city adventure was to make the 6 hour drive from Kansas City to St. Louis for the weekend. Being that we normally never left the city limits, 6 hours on interstate 70 seemed like a lifetime! But somehow we made it. I was fascinated to think that I-70, the same highway we used all the time back in Kansas City, somehow connected me to St. Louis, if you just keep going!

We checked into the Drury Inn. I thought it was so fancy! Well, it is fancy if you are 11 and have never stayed in a real hotel before. The weekend consisted of typical family vacation things. We went to the zoo, Six Flags amusement park, and visited the St. Louis Arch.

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My memories of the Arch are the most vivid I have from that trip. I remember looking up at the arch and not being able to believe that anything was so big. We went inside and took the ride to the top – and I was terrified! I looked down one side of the Arch and got vertigo! I was sure we were all doomed. If too many people stopped on the same side of the building we were going to topple the structure for sure! Somehow the explanation of the structural perfection of an arch didn’t seem to reassure me.

When we went home, driving back on I-70, I felt I had seen the world. It was the first time I realized the whole country was connected if you just keep going! I saw the world as bigger – containing possibility – that there is magic waiting at the end of long stretches of highway.

When I graduated from high school my mother gave me a purple luggage set as my graduation present. I thought it strange as I hadn’t ever needed luggage in my life. She said it was because she hoped my life as a grown woman would include travel and adventure. I guess she got her wish.

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I’m now on the road 9 months out of the year. Exotic locations are normal now. I’m flown to places Cabo San Lucas, Honolulu, Singapore, Iceland, and New Zealand for work. With my traveling lifestyle, 6 hours in a car is a short travel day for me! My, how things change… But I will never forget where I came from. I will never forget to be grateful for my life and the adventure it is. For a girl from Kansas, I guess I’m doing all right.

Signing off, from a lovely little town in Tuscany…

Mama Lou: American Strong Woman

Thanks, Mama Lou! We all have dreams and no matter where our lives eventually take us, we all have things we can be grateful for.   How about you, out there?  Have a travel memory you’d like to share?  Any adventure – far or near, funny or poignant, please send me your 500 words or fewer essay to GinaLondon@gmail.com and I’ll do my best to post them all during my guest blog series, “Travel Memories.” 

And if you like travel and adventure – you’ll love “Because I’m Small and You Love Me:  The World According to My Four-year-old”   Available NOW for PRESALE ORDERS in the US. 

Hope to hear from you,

Ciao!

Gina