Mindfulness in Tuscany

I have discovered the best place to practice mindfulness is on holiday. In Italy.

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But not just any part,

I find Italy’s cuore, or heart, is best.

I’m surrounded by the uplifting, yet relaxing, redolence of lavender as a cool, gentle breeze soothes the heat from the blazing sun in the blue halcyon sky. I am lounging on a recliner by a swimming pool. Spanning out beyond the pool is the expanse of sage-colored olive groves, deep green shaggy pencils of cypress and the rolling hills that define rural Tuscany. I am completely at peace.

I am not worrying about the future nor reflecting upon the past. I am most contentedly and deeply breathing in – the now.

Last week my young daughter and I stayed at Il Pozzo a traditional and cozy agriturismo, a working farm that welcomes guests from the world over into its charmingly remodeled 500-year-old stables turned self-catering cottages run by my dear friend, the incomparable Carla Veneri.  A gracious host to all, she, after the four years I have known her, has become like a sister to me.

Il Pozzo is named for the ancient well that was found on the property when the Veneri family purchased the property more than a decade ago. It’s set in the village of Capolona, just a quick 10-minute drive from the larger Tuscan town of Arezzo where I lived for three years.

In spite of living so close for so long, and visiting several times for a dinner or an olive harvest, I had never really stayed at Il Pozzo. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there’s a world of difference between staying in a bustling Tuscan town to the tranquillity of the Tuscan countryside.

In Arezzo, the town’s historic center or centro storico is teeming with people during the fresh hours of a summer’s evening. Le Belle Figure, or beautiful people spill out of the cafes and bars into the piazze or public squares, laughing and talking until well after midnight.

At Il Pozzo, we also laughed and talked until late with the other guests as we devoured home-made dinners of tagliatelle, crostini, salami, roasted meats, garden-grown vegetables – including incredible fried zucchini flowers, scrumptious desserts and plenty of locally-produced wines. But instead of Arezzo’s town-square’s bright lights, we were enveloped by a twinkly, star-filled raven sky. Only the soft padding of our sandals and one of Il Pozzo’s resident cats quietly accompanied us as we trundled down the lavender and rose-lined paths toward our rooms.

Il Pozzo cooks all the incredible dishes. They also bake a heart-shaped cake as big as their own that greets each guest when they check in. On Friday’s there’s a special treat: Carla helps the children make pizzas from scratch. From flour, yeast and warm water to the wood-fired oven, a variety of pies emerge as uniquely flavoured and sometimes lopsided as the half-sized chefs who create them.

Depending on what time of year you choose to stay, you can take a cooking class, play bocce, or help harvest olives and partake of Tuscany’s famed olio nuovo – a must for any foodie’s bucket list (and which I describe in this previous essay).

Throughout my stay, I took plenty of time to look around and look within.

My tablet wasn’t with me. My phone was not turned on to respond to texts or What’s App or emails or whatever. I only turned it on to take and post the occasional envy-inducing photo. (I’m a human in the 21st century after all!)

As the father of the Swedish family who was staying for the first time as we were there said, “I’ve forgotten there is any business or other world outside of Il Pozzo. We feel as comfortable here as if we were with family – who we really like!”

Take a break from the rat-race and get off the beaten path to Tuscany and Il Pozzo. Tell Carla, Gina sent you.

A heart-shaped cake will be waiting for you.

Baci, Gina

Copyright 2016 Gina London. All Rights Reserved. 

 

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Proof you CAN reinvent yourself on a trip to Ireland’s famous Cliffs of Moher

One of the most breathtaking experiences in Ireland occurs when you stand upon the Cliffs of Moher looking out over the Atlantic while the 702 foot (214 m) stone walls are rhythmically and dramatically battered by waves and wind.

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The Cliffs of Moher the day we visited them

Powerful and moving as it is, as I recently trekked them with my seven-year-old daughter, the cliffs would have been mere rocks if not for the rockin’ tour provided by our local Paddywagon guide, Michael.

Michael and another happy Paddywagon guest
Michael and another happy Paddywagon guest

Paddywagon runs a fleet of tour buses –departing daily from towns around Ireland like Dublin and our home here in Cork. I had been meaning to book an excursion for months but was afraid it might be a boring waste of money. Drive you to the sights with a few monotonous “on your left blah-blahs”along the way and that’s it. But no! Our driver Michael was an absolute raconteur. He regaled us with colorful tales of Irish history, sprinkled with juicy gossip, charming jokes and kindly folksiness throughout. He even sang us a few ditties that were high in personality even if they were a bit low on songmanship!

We, along with everyone else on the bus, were absolutely enchanted.

We had a terrific time, thank you, Michael!
We had a terrific time, thank you, Michael!

At the end of the day, before stepping down from the bus, I had to learn a bit more about Michael. We chatted and he told me he’s from Tipperary and worked as a professional engineer for years before he was suddenly laid off during Ireland’s (and many other countries’ ) recession in 2010. Michael described his life afterward:

I tried everything and then a friend encouraged me to get my bus drivers permit and I never looked back,

I logged onto Trip Advisor after we got home to tell everyone about Michael. What I found was that “Bus driver Michael” was already a Paddywagon celebrity. My review joined dozens of previous brightly glowing posts about him. While Michael may no longer be building roads and bridges, now, as he drives over them and tells his stories and sings his funny songs, he is building different kinds of bridges – those of warm memories and experiences – for tourists from all over the world.

Life is not about discovering yourself, it’s about creating yourself.

Coco Chanel once said that and I think life is a combination of the both. As you go through your life and your career, things will happen that you’re not prepared for; maybe you are unexpectedly laid off or fired.

And as you force yourself to update your CV and get back into the job market:

  1. You will discover you have a fortitude and determination you didn’t think was in you.
  2. Your discovery will give you the extra-strength and confidence to adapt and reinvent yourself in ways you may not have imagined.
  3. Stretch yourself. Maybe you won’t be in the same field as you were in before, but:
  4. You can create yourself anew.
  5. You CAN do it.

You are ready for the next chapter of your life. Life is certainly a journey, and if your journey takes you to Cork, Ireland – do yourself a favor and take a Paddywagon Tour.

lulu running

Ask for Michael, the engineer-turned-singing-tour-guide. Tell him Gina sent you. You’ll be glad you did.

Copyright 2015 Gina London. All Rights Reserved.

Prairie Pride!

We made a trip this week to Conner Prairie and took an incredible adventure back in time.

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Lulu and her lamb Lili, both dressed in period clothing, prepare to travel back in time.

Affiliated with the Smithsonian, this museum-park leads you through a meandering journey of pioneer life in Indiana before and around the time it became a state in 1816.

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Lulu and I practiced tomahawk throwing with a real descendant from the Lenape, or Delaware, Indians who lived in this area before and during the fur-trading days of the early 1800s.

Cause every girl needs tomahawk lessons!
Cause every girl needs tomahawk lessons!

Down the lane, real-life historians, artisans and craftspeople recreate a pioneer village from  1836.   They never break character as they demonstrate their handiwork and weave delightful stories about the goings-on in the town.

Pioneer Wheel of Fortune
Pioneer Wheel of Fortune

Before entering “Prairietown, Lulu spun a wheel which determined she would be a local artist in the village. As such, she had certain tasks to perform and answers she needed to discover by asking questions of the other villagers.

We had to ask those questions in present tense and never let on that we were really visitors from the future.  (I asked “Mrs. Zimmerman” at the Golden Eagle Inn, for example, if I could take her picture with my “brand new camera contraption” and she pulled out a large wooden box with a lens on the front and a mirror inside that projected a reflected image on a piece of paper that could then be copied in pencil as the newest camera she had recently received from her brother in Europe. )

Lulu smiled with her from behind the Inn’s bar.

Would you like some Elderberry wine?
Would you like some Elderberry wine?

Lulu was given the chore to wash  some vegetables at the Inn.

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She also patiently learned how to hand-dip a beeswax candle.

Each beeswax candle takes dozens of dips in the hot wax to reach the right size.
Each beeswax candle takes dozens of dips in the hot wax to reach the right size.

She sang folk tunes with “Mrs. Campbell” and her “Sister Laura who is visiting from the big city of Lexington and doesn’t like this little town at all.”

Lulu sang songs with these lovely ladies
Lulu sang songs with these lovely ladies

She rolled dough and cut out noodles with the spinster lady (at the ripe old age of 27!) who lived at a cabin with a dozen or so real young turkeys wandering in the backyard.

This is a bit different than when Lulu helps Daddy make tortelli!
This is a bit different than when Lulu helps Daddy make tortelli!

And Lulu spent about 15 full minutes creating her own custom stencil designs.  I didn’t mind.  The magic wheel had designated her an Artist after all.

Artist at work. I think the pink boots add inspiration to her work.
Artist at work. I think the pink boots add inspiration to her work.

Although we lived for the past three years in Italy, that inspiring land of the Renaissance where history reaches out to you from every street in art and architecture, our experience exploring Conner Prairie was an exhilarating hands-on event.

Village carpenter Mr. McClure, Lulu and Lili.
Village carpenter Mr. McClure, Lulu and Lili.

The idea of role-playing with the pioneers obviously resonated with Lulu who didn’t want to leave the “land of the olden times.”

Grammie and Lulu at the Golden Eagle Inn.
Grammie and Lulu at the Golden Eagle Inn.

And for me, it was an important opportunity to be reminded how proud I am of something I never earned.  It was simply bestowed upon me the day I was born.  Something that could too easily be taken for granted while I was encompassed by the grand history of Italy.  Something that my forefathers worked hard to create and died to protect:  My Hoosier and American heritage.

Thank you, Mom, for taking Lulu and me to Conner Prairie.

Gina

P.S. What’s your heritage? What makes you proud? What makes you appreciate other cultures?

You CAN go back home. But you won’t have enough time to do everything you want….

I can’t believe it.  After living in Italy for three years, my first visit to the United States is drawing to a close.  This trip back home again to Indiana: the state where I was born, grew up and where my mom and step-dad still live has just one full day left.

My parents' Indiana lakeside home
My parents’ Indiana lakeside home

I landed on American soil on July 18.  With more than a month ahead, in addition to feting with my family, I thought I had plenty of time to reconnect with everyone.   I had so many plans!

Scotty, Lulu and I drove up to northwest Indiana to visit my college-buddy-like-a-brother Sam Wakim and his family for a combined dentist and friendly visit.

Sam and the fams!
Sam and the fams!

I zipped over to La Porte, the town where I was born, and toured Pine Lake where I spent  happy summers with family, and peeked at the house Grandpa and Grannie Raven had built and lived in forever.

Pine Lake in La Porte, Indiana
Pine Lake in La Porte, Indiana
If you look closely, you can see "Gina Andrea Brad" written in this bit of sidewalk that is still at my old grandparents' house - commemorating the births of me, my sister and my brother!
If you look closely, you can see “Gina Andrea Brad” written in this bit of sidewalk that is still at my old grandparents’ house – commemorating the births of me, my sister and my brother!

I had dinner with my fire-chief cousin and his family.

Cousins! Cousins!

I met again with Eric Schneller, the first friend I ever made at Indiana University when I first sat next to him in my freshman biology class.  I had dinner with ADPi sorority sisters Beth, Dottie and Elizabeth.  We moved beyond the shallow ties of youthful sisterhood to wiser bonds forged through surviving the unexpected twists and painful turns real life often deals. We are still hanging in there, but I am not kidding when I say we laughed and we cried.

Sorority Sisters then and real-life sisters now.
Sorority Sisters then and real-life sisters now.

I had dinner with a couple of close youth group friends, Anita and Curt, who got married shortly after high school.  They openly shared the incredible ups and downs that tried and ultimately strengthened their enduring union.

Curt, Anita and me
Curt, Anita and me

And speaking of my school days, I had dearly hoped to travel to Randolph County to the tiny town of Farmland to visit with the friends who were instrumental in creating the many colorful memories I have of my childhood.  We’ve kept up virtually on Facebook, and I wanted to reunite with them in person.

But the weeks flew by and I didn’t make it happen.

I also didn’t get a chance to reconnect with my cousin Debbie and some other people I had envisioned seeing.

But I did get to hug a lot of my immediate family including Mom, Jerry, Andrea, Tony, Sophia, Brad, Jayson, Patience, Helena, Sam, Celeste and my ninety-nine-and-a-half-year-young Aunt Anita aka “Neatie.”

Many of the awesome members of my family!
Many of the awesome members of my family!

We have had boat trips on the lake.

Boat trips, yey!
Boat trips, yey!
C'mon in- the (green lake) water's fine!
C’mon in- the (green lake) water’s fine!

 

We have had bonfires.  We have had dinner parties. We have had cake, cookies and Mom’s famous chocolate chip coffeecake.  Have I mentioned the mountains of ice cream?

Lulu LOOOVES ice cream.
Lulu LOOOVES ice cream.

Did I mention that even though Lulu has already eaten her weight in delectable Italian gelato, one of her new favorite places in the world is Dairy Queen?  Okay, we have had too much eating, I must say.

But we simply have not had enough time to do everything I hoped.

To everyone I saw, I love you and am so glad we were able to see each other again.   To everyone I didn’t get a chance to see.  I am sorry I missed you.  I do miss you.   Please come to see us in Ireland.

Tonight, as Lulu and I looked out across my parents’ backyard on Morse Lake, the setting sun was shimmering on the water.

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“It looks like diamonds. Real ones,” Lulu said.

“Yes, Lulu,” I replied,  reflecting on the memories of the past four weeks.  Although I didn’t get to see and do every single thing I had hoped to when I first arrived, the glow of my time back here in Indiana has been shiny and priceless just the same. Like diamonds. Real ones.

Morse Lake and the things that memories are made of.
Morse Lake and the things that memories are made of.

Love to you, no matter where you are!

Gina

P.S.  How was your summer?  Did you spend it with family? Friends? What’s in store for September?  Let me know!

 

 

 

 

A Day to Celebrate!

Have you ever tried a red velvet deep fried Oreo cookie?  Neither have I.  But I could have!

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That’s because we traveled to the heart of the heartland.  The apex of all-you-can-eat hearty-heart-attack fantastic funnel cakes, elephant ears, corn dogs and cotton candy:  The Indiana State Fair!

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At first I happily thought I had found the Wine barn.  Then I realized an important letter was obscured by a tree.

PicMonkey Collage

Today was Pork Day.

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And so naturally I had to have a Bar-B-Que Pulled Pork Sandwich.

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Thank you Dwayne, the kind representative from the pork stand.

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And thank you, Carla Comer Peacock, an honest-to-God girlfriend of mine from Monroe Central High School I ran into (we’re friends on Facebook so we recognized each other!!) who helped me get the pink pork-chop T-shirt Lulu is sporting (and the AWESOME pink Indiana Pork hat she isn’t wearing).

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Yes, we went to the livestock barns.   I pet a giant turkey.

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Lulu and her cousin Sophia were a cute little chick and bunny.

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We awed at World’s Largest Hog.

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And hammed it up at the “Make Your Own Post-card Booth” at the Soybean Barn.

state fair fun!

Since state fairs revolve around agriculture and celebrate the livelihood of farming,  indeed, there was a soybean barn… and a corn barn… and a completely recreated pioneer-era working farm.  It was a great fun and learning experience.   For example, the tractor-driven trailers that transported the too-tired-to-walk are fueled by those ubiquitous Hoosier soy legumes.   Cool-beans!

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The Department of Natural Resources sponsored a Catch-and-Release pond and a Butterfly Pavilion.

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We had no takers at our kissing booth.

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But Lulu and Sophia were both very much “Wanted!”

wanted

In the afternoon, as we were ready to go, I saw my friend Carla again. She asked my husband whether we enjoyed Indiana – since we have lived in Europe for so long.    Of course we enjoyed ourselves.  We’re constant tourists.

We revel in all things terrific.

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Who wouldn’t enjoy a lemonade made from inside a giant plastic lemon!

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With love from the Indiana State Fair!

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Baci, Gina! 

Copyright 2014 Gina London.  All Rights Reserved.

 

Nigerian Diary: Leaving Lagos!

I sit in my hotel room with my bags all packed.  This improbable trip to Nigeria, born two years ago through a Tweet and a big dream from a remarkable Nigerian businessman named Ayo Owodunni, has come to a successful close.

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The Find Your Edge Dream Team!

He and fellow visionary businessman, Ayoola Jolayemi, their wives, the amazing support team of Ayoola’s company, SwiftThink, the indomitable Richmond Dayo Johnson, and many others all helped to make this project such a resounding success.

We all believe that Mastering our ABC’s (Appearance, Behavior and Communication)  goes a long way to making a difference in our personal and professional lives  – and the world around us.

The Corporate Affairs team at Nigerian Breweries after our day-long Crisis Communications session.  A+ !!
The Corporate Affairs team at Nigerian Breweries after our day-long Crisis Communications session. A+ !!

Over the past six weeks, our Find Your Edge programs have brought communications training sessions and workshops to businesses, organizations and students.

Me giving it my all at the Find Your Edge STUDENT SUMMIT on Wednesday.
Me giving it my all at the Find Your Edge STUDENT SUMMIT on Wednesday.

And last night, two of SwiftThink’s best and brightest, Tope and Ibukun, treated me to a special night out on the town.

All work and no play...
All work and no play…

Without any instructional slide shows, white boards or case studies, we danced, laughed and sang at Isaac Geralds’s birthday party.

Happy birthday, Isaac! from the ladies.
Happy birthday, Isaac! from the ladies.

An incredible evening of good fun held at “Freedom Park” in Lagos.  It used to be a prison during British colonial times, but now is a gathering place for freedom of expression.  And fun.

No, Isaac did not bring me up on stage. Oh, yes he did!
No, Isaac did not bring me up on stage. Oh, yes he did!

Thank you, gentlemen, for all your hard work during our Find Your Edge project, and for taking care of me last night.

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Thanks, gents!
Thanks, gents!

And thank you Isaac, for your incredible voice that you so freely gave last night AND at the Student Summit on Wednesday.

Check him singing live my favorite song: “Ijebu Girl!” below!

Thank you again, Ayo, for dreaming such BIG dreams. And thank you, Ayoola for putting the business wheels into high gear.  Thank you, Folake and Seyi for being so supportive, sharp and caring. Thanks to everyone of you dear hard workers at SwiftThink.  This is only the beginning!

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Ayoola and me before the start of the Student Summit. Dream BIG people!

As I prepare to get on the plane this evening that will take me back to the United States – which I haven’t visited in three years –  I’ll be remembering all the inspirational experiences and new friends I had and met here in Nigeria.

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Faces of inspiration at our Student Summit this week!

I’ll be looking forward to seeing my husband and daughter whom I haven’t seen since I came here, 34 days ago.  I’ll be thinking of my dear mommy whom I haven’t seen during the whole time I lived in Tuscany.  And I also can’t help thinking about the people who yesterday boarded Malaysian Flight 17 only to meet with unexpected and preventable tragedy.

Nigerians often tell me how much they love life.  Last night’s birthday party certainly demonstrated it in a most joyful way.

Party! :)
Party! 🙂

I love life too – and want to savor and embrace every second of it because as we all know, life is fleeting.

Let’s encourage one another and unapologetically dance, sing, laugh and celebrate every moment that we can.

I love you, Lagos.  See you soon.

Baci!

Gina

Copyright 2014 Gina London. All rights reserved.

 

Nigeria Diary: Eko Atlantic, a new development envisioning a new future

We are in the normal bumper to bumper traffic along the busy streets of Lagos.  Ayo expertly steers our black KIA around the yellow painted vans crammed with passengers known as Danfo buses.  He zips past some equally bright three-wheeled Tuk-Tuks and then outmaneuvers the myriad of mopeds and other assorted cars and SUVs which manage to spread out across every inch of asphalt – all at the same time.

This is Lagos traffic
This is Lagos traffic

We reach our destination and Ayo turns the KIA off of the clogged street, past a few bored security guards and onto an unpaved road devoid of traffic.   Before us: a vast expanse of white sand stretches to the Atlantic coast.

Eko Atlantic
Eko Atlantic

This is not a public beach. It’s a working construction site for a daunting planned development known as Eko Atlantic.  Dredgers are working around the clock to fill the area with sand and create a brand new island that – according to its website – will be home and workplace to more than 250,000 people.

This sign of the future is on the construction site
This sign of the future is on the construction site

The project began in earnest in 2005 and the managing director of South Energyx Nigeria Limited, the firm responsible for the project , predicts the “The first residential tower will open in 2016.”

Eko Pearl Tower
Eko Pearl Tower

Design renderings for the completed ten-square kilometer (3.86 sq mi) mixed use development showcase tony waterfronts, leisure facilities, retail shops, upscale offices and “tree-lined streets with efficient transport systems.”

Artist's rendition of Lagos's Eko Atlantic
Artist’s rendition of Lagos’s Eko Atlantic

Today in 2014,  Ayo and I see signs of underground surface drainage pipes and the beginnings of roadway infrastructure.

The Eko Atlantic  construction site yesterday
The Eko Atlantic construction site yesterday

We watch a few minutes while gigantic dump trucks move mountains of sand.   Then Ayo slowly merges back into the busy streets.  These are not lined with trees, but rather teeming with vehicles and people of all shapes and sizes.

Satellite view of Eko Atlantic island so far. How will it look in the future?
Satellite view of Eko Atlantic island so far. How will it look in the future?

I look out of the window as we leave Eko Atlantic.  In spite of its present problems, Nigeria is clearly envisioning  – and working toward – an improved tomorrow.

And speaking of tomorrow- tomorrow I will present as part of a panel at a Nigeria Infrastructure Building Conference.  I look forward to hearing the other participants’ visions and plans.

In gratitude for this experience here in Lagos,

Gina

P.S. Do you know about Nigeria’s Eko Atlantic project?  What do you think?  Look forward to hearing from you!