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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Countdown to Departure from Italy. 8 days to go. Pazzi for Il Pozzo Pizza!

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Last night we went to one of our favorite places – the lovely Tuscany country inn – “Il Pozzo” for a pizza-making party – hosted by our awesome friend and the coolest inn-keeper in all of Italy – probably the world – Carla Veneri!

The one, the only, Carla Veneri!
The one, the only, Carla Veneri!

Of course, Italy is synonymous with pizza, but with Carla, you get more; it’s a real hands-on experience!

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Olivia, Mateo, Matilde, Eduardo, Ludovica and of course, Lulu were all provided wooden boards, flour, yeast, water and salt.  They dug in, pouring, stirring and rolling – as I marveled how those few simple ingredients combine to make such a tasty crust.

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As the children marched outside – carrying their rolled-out crusts over to Il Pozzo’s stone oven, (manned by their indomitable chief handy-man and chef, Carlo) I realized that maybe it’s more than the ingredients; it is also the smoky flavor and crisp texture the oven’s wood-sparked flames provide that make the “That’s Italian” difference.

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The final result, as you can see but unfortunately cannot taste, was perfect. Topped with tangy tomato sauce, cheese and whatever-other-delectables-you-can-imagine, we happily munched away!

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And, as with every gathering over which Carla presides, laughter and fun are always served up alongside.

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This was our last visit to this glorious, breath-taking 500-year-old farmhouse set among Tuscany’s rollling hills.  For this time around.  I know it won’t be our last.

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We love Il Pozzo. We love you Carla.

Un grande baccino!
We love you, Carla!

And we love Pizza!

Baci, Gina

Copyright 2014 Gina London.  All Rights Reserved.

 

 

 

 

Countdown to departure from Italy. 14 Days to Go!

Last night, Lulu and I hosted a little aperitivo, or happy hour, to hug many of the friends we made here in Arezzo.  And I am happy to share some of the photos with you!

Grazie a tuttii!
Grazie a tutti!

Two weeks from today, Lulu, Scotty and I will board an airplane for a direct flight from Pisa, Italy to Cork, Ireland.

Lulu presented "Awards" to the many people who enriched our lives here in Arezzo!
Lulu presented “Awards” to the many people who enriched our lives here in Arezzo!

The trip will last only a little over an hour.  In that short amount of time we will move to a new country, a new culture and a new life.

Dionata Baroni, the wonderful director of Lulu's school, Allioti.
Dionata Baroni, the wonderful director of Lulu’s school, Allioti.
Simona, Lulu and Massimo
Simona, Lulu and Massimo

Fortunately – along with clothing, toys and a few keepsakes, we will be carrying a treasure of memories of our three years in Arezzo.

The incredibly inspirational and progressive-thinking, Franci Cappelletti, who made so many things possible!
The incredibly inspirational and progressive-thinking, Franci Cappelletti, who made so many things possible!

Lulu had to give away some of her larger play-things like a scooter, a wooden easel/chalkboard and this giant cardboard rocket-ship that was featured in a short Italian film (click below to see it!) – but she’s exchanging these replaceable things for the irreplaceable experiences and adventures that come from travel.

We will make new friends, of course, but we will never forget the incredibly warm, caring and loving people we met in Arezzo.

Thank you all for coming last night – and for everything else over our three years as neighbors and friends!

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And hey, we’re only a short direct flight away, right?!

Baci e grazie!!

Gina

Copyright 2014 Gina London.  All Rights Reserved.

Like nothing you have tasted before: Tuscany’s New Oil!

Before we moved to Italy, I had never heard of olio nuovo. Literally translated it means “new oil” – from the first press of picked olives. But liberally translated – otherwise known as according to me – it means “get ready for the most amazing taste sensation ever!”

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This photo does not do justice to the vibrancy of the green!

Yesterday, Lulu and company could be seen climbing the olive trees at Il Pozzo, our friend Carla Veneri’s congenial country inn just outside of Arezzo.

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The silvery boughs are heavy with abundance. That’s fancy for “Man, that’s a lot of olives!”

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While the kids pick up in the branches..

Lulu takes a rest up in the tree
Lulu takes a rest up in the tree

..I reach out from my place firmly on the ground.

I'm working up an appetite. Wonder if there will be any food? ;)
I’m working up an appetite. Wonder if there will be any food? 😉

The nets and baskets below are quickly filled and refilled.

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Down the hillside, a cast of terrific cooks and helpers adds logs to the fire and drizzle grilled bruschetta with the freshest, greenest olive oil.

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A harvest feast is being prepared.

Carla's mom shows off the biggest porcini I have ever seen. Found in woods nearby.
Carla’s mom shows off the biggest porcini I have ever seen. Found in woods nearby.

It’s kicked off with an appetizer made from the biggest porcini mushroom I, and many of the other gathered guests, have ever seen. Carla’s mom, who is the head chef here at Il Pozzo, transformed it into fried slices of savory goodness.

Carla hands out the porcini appetizers. Che buona!
Carla hands out the porcini appetizers.
Che buona!
Che buona!

We’re next met by four plates of lasagne. Pumpkin and sage, vegetarian and a ragu of carne. But they’re only the primi or first course.

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Those of us gathered around Il Pozzo’s expansive garden table are also served mounds of grilled ribs and salsicce – the Tuscan-style flavorful sausage that my new German friends sitting to my right say are better than any bratwurst. There’s roasted potatoes, cauliflower and a garlic spinach.

Buon appetito!
Buon appetito!

Of course just look at those corks, there’s also plenty of Italian red wine.

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And after such a banquet, you might forget why you came here in the first place, but before we go home, each guest is handed a bottle of Il Pozzo olio nuovo.
You know it’s fresh, not just from the flavor, but because you can watch Carla’s dad press the olives right before your eyes.

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The olive press machinery is on the same grounds as all the trees.

And I looked at the phosphorescent liquid streaming out from the pressing machine, I thought back to our first autumn in Tuscany. This excerpt is from my book, Because I’m Small Now and You Love Me:

It was October and Fabrizio and his wife Guisy had just bottled the first-press. He handed us a bottle of the brightest colored green liquid I had ever seen that wasn’t some kind of artificially mint-flavored alcohol. It was practically neon. If I hadn’t seen it myself, I wouldn’t have believed this color could exist in nature.

I poured a little onto a white plate. It gleamed and glowed. ..The flavor was so pungently crisp and sharp; raw and original, that I was taken aback.

So was Lulu. “Blech. This tastes like grass,” she said.

Now, a year older, Lulu’s palate is more mature and she happily tried a slice of olive oiled bruschetta.

“Hmm.. It’s too forte (strong), I still don’t care for it. ” she says this time.  A little more refined language perhaps, but she’s not a convert. Yet.

Lulu still didn't like the sharp taste of olio nuovo. We'll have to try again next year!
Lulu still didn’t like the sharp taste of olio nuovo. We’ll have to try again next year!

“Maybe next year,” I say. I’m more than happy to think that perhaps we’ll still be in Italy next October. And Il Pozzo’s olive picking event is definitely something I would mark on the calendar.

Since you can’t lick this essay, you’ll have to fly here for your own taste!

Til then,

Baci, Gina

P.S.  How many of you have picked olives?  Tasted nuovo olio?  Been to Il Pozzo yet?  Let me know!

How to host a Perfect Autumn Picnic

The days are getting shorter and the weather is getting cooler.  But if you hurry, and take these handy tips I learned yesterday, you can take advantage of the last few remaining precious warm weekends to host a delightful outdoor lunch for you and your friends.  

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1.       Have each guest bring a dish.   You’ll save yourself the trouble of cooking for a crowd and get more variety and flavor if everyone  brings something to eat.  It helps if you have some gourmands in your group, like we did, who enjoy making pans of lasagna and roasted turkey breasts wrapped in pancetta.

Yes, that's a clean diaper in the foreground! It was a family affair..
Yes, that’s a clean diaper in the foreground! It was a family affair..

2.       Have each guest bring something to drink.  An assortment of beverages always makes a picnic more refreshing.  As you can see, our assortment ranged from orange Fanta – to a certain shade of red.

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3.       Make sure there’s plenty of seating.  If you don’t have a picnic table, no problem.  Have your friends carry over some benches or chairs.  And you can also spread out an assortment of blankets.

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4. Scatter some stone buildings about .   Even more than the weather, warm ambience can be created by adding in some ancient buildings. The converted farm and stall buildings here were more than 500 years old, so that’s pretty good.

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5. Fly to Tuscany.  The best picnics are in the countryside, right?  Here in Capolona, just a couple of miles outside of our adopted hometown of Arezzo, you’ll find a lovely verdant setting – complete with mandatory rolling hills and olive trees.

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Well, that’s about it! Hope you learned a little something.   Next time you’re thinking picnic, you’re covered.  Or, you can just call Carla Veneri, our gracious host from yesterday’s feast, and the terrific innkeeper at Il Pozzo – She can arrange it all for you as her guest!

Our terrific friend and host Carla! - and me.
Our terrific friend and host Carla! – and me.

Baci from Tuscany – Here’s to your next great picnic – wherever it is, I’m sure it will be great!

Gina

Leverage your message. And my first polo match.

What happens to your presentation after it’s over? Does it fade away like the memory it has become? Or can you find ways to repurpose it to help add value to your organization, your audience, and your own unique brand?

It all depends on you!

Villa Sesta Polo club with the Tuscan hills where Chianti comes from in the background!
Villa Sesta Polo club with the Tuscan hills where Chianti comes from in the background!

Yesterday, Lulu and I went to our first polo match. In the Chianti hills between Siena and Arezzo, we nibbled on Tuscan-style snacks like Bufala mozzarella and prosciutto served to us by the Villa Sesta Club staff.

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As we looked out on the field, we learned that each of the four players on a team has four separate horses to use for each of the four “chukkers” or periods that take place in the fast-paced game.

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Four horses each? No wonder it takes a lot of money to play this sport. But, in spite of the apparent wealth, it wasn’t a snooty crowd like I’d imagined from that scene in Pretty Woman –which is about my only previous exposure to polo.

By example, our hosts, equestrian and country-inn Il Pozzo owner Carla Veneri and her dentist boyfriend Federico (plus their dog Amelie) couldn’t be more down-to-earth and laid back.

Carla, Federico, Amelie, Me and yes, squint, Lulu is there too. She said the sun was making her "go blind."
Carla, Federico, Amelie, Me and yes, squint, Lulu is there too. She said the sun was making her “go blind.”

The exciting game, plus the great food and sun-filled Tuscan sky, made for a, as our very-British-sounding announcer said so well, “Splendid Sunday afternoon.”

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So! I could carry the day in my mind, or I could take photos and share my experience – along with my lesson not to prejudge a group before meeting its members – with others. It’s the same with your work.

YouTube. If your presentation isn’t proprietary in nature, have someone record it and put the video on your company’s YouTube channel. Or put it on your own. You or your organization do have a channel, right? If not, it’s super easy to set-up!

Newsletter or Blog. Adapt the transcript of your presentation into a piece for a company newsletter or blog. If you have your own blog, post it there. This way, you can reach employees or potential clients or whoever wasn’t able to attend in person.

SlideShare. Post your wonderfully simple and graphic PowerPoint presentation (see my previous article about this!) on SlideShare.

Publications. Yes, you heard me! Depending on your content, you can tweak your presentation and submit a query letter to a variety of trade magazines and/or business journals. The Wall Street Journal and WIRED magazine, for example, both offer member-blogs. Why not?

When you consider the variety of ways that you and your hard work can continue to be amplified – by repurposing and promoting your message – you are making yourself more valuable and relevant to your company. That’s another valuable lesson.

Lulu enchanted by Villa Sesta Polo Club's topiary ponies.
Lulu enchanted by Villa Sesta Polo Club’s topiary ponies.

As our polo announcer would say, “Simply splendid, indeed!”

Baci, tutti! Gina

A perfect evening at “Il Pozzo”

In addition to the breathtaking views of the Tuscan country-side,

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the olive trees and cypresses,

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the expansive swimming pool,

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and the ancient stone buildings, what you’ll really luxuriate in, are the loads of Italian hospitality, warmth and lively spirit –  when you visit Il Pozzo, or “The Well,” named for the old well the Veneri family discovered as they remarkably established their agriturismo where, last night,  Scotty, Lulu and I spent a thoroughly enjoyable evening .

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Our host was Carla Veneri,  who graciously drove us here about 20 minutes outside of Arezzo,  after learning about my love for Tuscany through my recently released book.   “Agriturismo” is the Italian word for a country farm-house that’s been converted into an inn and offers  recreation like cooking classes, swimming and other vacation activities.  But that word doesn’t go far enough to describe the kind of reception you’ll find at “Il Pozzo

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Wonderful Carla trying to steal a snuggle from one of Lulu’s new friends: squirmy Olivia!

We arrived just in time for Friday’s “Pizza Making” event.  Every Friday, Carla leads the children of the guests in a group pizza class.

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It was hilarious as the kids took turns painting each other in flour.

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But it was also fun, hands-on education – as the kids carefully added dissolved yeast, waited for the dough to rise under little plastic bowls and then rolled out the pasta (Italian for “dough”) themselves.

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Here come the pizza making photos!!

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Ready for the oven! Ta-dah!

Then Carla’s babbo arrived with a black animal that I mistakenly called a “pony” as the kids gathered around it.

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“Non, e una Falabella!” her dad smiled and corrected me.  “They’re actually miniature horses that originated in Argentina.”

It was he – Carla’s dad, not the Falabella – who originally bought the property when Carla was only eight. The buildings were all run down; many of the roofs had caved  in.  The family kept their full-sized horses there at first.  Then, “piano, piano,” or little by little, they completely renovated the area and opened Il Pozzo almost 10 years ago.

The surroundings are now more than congenial.  Even yesterday’s slight threat of rain gave way to a rainbow that brightened our sky for nearly two hours.

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Not a great photo – but hopefully you can see the rainbow! It was much brighter in person, I promise!

Lulu and the other kids took turns swimming, choosing flavors for their pizzas, watching them go into the log-fired oven..

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…and happily savoring the results.

The grown-up guests also gathered by the pool and filled their plates with the incredible buffet – authentic Tuscan food cooked by Carla’s mom and friends.   Freshly-sliced prosciutto, fried zucchini flowers and an assortment of crostini – small rounds of bread with savory toppings like nero, made with chicken liver and another with caramelized onions  – were my personal highlights.

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Sparkling Prosecco before dinner, red wine during and afterward a selection of grappa and limoncello.  It was wonderful.  Wonderfully Tuscan.

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We stayed until nearly midnight.

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This morning, when Lulu finally woke up – for the first time in her life after 10AM – I asked what her favorite part of the enchanting evening had been.

“Swimmin’ and playin’ with my new friends – Ah! Wait! Aaaand I really liked makin’ the pizza – Ah! Wait! I also liked the kitties and the little horse.  Ah! Wait! Can you just put ‘All!?!’”

Okay. “All” it is. Come to Tuscany and spend some time at Carla Veneri’s marvelous  “Il Pozzo” agriturismo.

“All” will be great.

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And for more kid-friendly adventures in Tuscany, order my book, “Because I’m Small Now and You Love Me.”  It’s life, love and the pursuit of parenting happiness!

Thanks for joining me today – and once again – here’s the link to “Il Pozzo” so you can come and visit Carla and her family for yourselves!

Baci,  Gina