Ferrara took me and my sketchbook by surprise.
On a whim, I decided to go with Ellie, my four-year-old, on a trip to a city I’d never been before, much less heard of. It was for the fifth edition of the Autori Diari di Viaggio Festival, or Travel Diaries Festival. A three-day event with workshops, exhibitions and art!
I knew I had to go. I wanted to sketch and meet other artists.
Ellie knew she wanted to go to eat.
Visiting this UNESCO World Heritage site in the beautiful Emilia-Romagna region was like walking straight into a medieval storybook. A fortified castle looms over the city center. It’s complete with a moat, drawbridges, towers and a dungeon.
In the town center, mazes of cobblestone paths and arches hide hidden passages. Brick housing and terracotta roofs line the tiny streets. The shopping is good: everything from luxury clothing to artisanal wares and Italian patented shoes.
Travel with a Kid Makes You Stop and Notice
Perhaps because of her short level, Ellie paid a lot of attention to the ground. She was constantly asking me how the stones “got this way”, or how these designs below her feet were shaped and built and cut.
While most visitors to the castle look up and marvel at the colorful frescoes, we spent a lot of time marveling at the tiles and mosaics she kept pointing out below.
Of course, it’s possible to visit Italy and do nothing but eat and drink. And when traveling with a young child, it’s almost better to visit as little museums as possible.
You may notice instantly, the coppia Ferarese, fragrant, twisted bread loaves. My first dinner was cappellacci alla zucca, pillows of egg-based ravioli. And thanks to my kid, we found the characteristic restaurant, Osteria I Quattro Angeli. When in Ferrara, come here for the most delicious Tagliatelle al Ragu ever.
Ferrara’s mignons were so pretty to draw! Bite-sized bursts of pleasure. Mini cakes and creamy pastries, paired perfectly with a shot of espresso, or glass of prosecco.
Stumbling on The Oldest Wine Bar in the World
In 1982, Olivier Bernier wrote about this ducal city. “And still there are squares and hidden churches. Just forget your map, allow yourself to get lost and you will find them.”
And that was how Ellie and I wandered down Via Della Volta Street.
Little did we know, we were treading one of the oldest streets in Italy—possibly in Europe! To stop and sketch (and drink), we chose Al Brindisi. We only found out upon our return home that it’s listed in Guinness Book of Records as the oldest wine bar in the world!
There is no better teacher than a child to show you how to enjoy the simple pleasures in life. In Ferrara, we’d come without a plan or travel itinerary. And we found fun everywhere.
Active travelers may want to do more than we did. Because we were just commuting, we chose a hotel in the center of everything, very easy to get around on foot.
But you can rent a bike and head for the outer walls of the city, where there are nine kilometers of biking trails. For more art and culture, Palazzo Dei Diamanti has ongoing exhibitions. During summer, the seven Comacchio beaches draw the sunbathers. To see even more of the lush area, join a motorboat cruise along the Po River.
Stay: Hotel Nazionale (Corso Porta Reno, 32/Tel: 0532 243596)
This boutique hotel in the historical center is a stone’s throw from the Este castle. Stylish rooms, allergy-free furnishings, chromo-therapy showers and a breakfast buffet. Doubles from €103
Drink and Dine: Osteria I Quattro Angeli (Piazza Castello, 10) or Al Brindisi (Enoteca Via Guglielmo degli Adelardi, 11)
I lie. It was pretty devastating.
But let me backtrack a bit…
In November 2015, I’d heard that a Fortune 500 company was hiring. They needed remote content producers for a travel and tourism-related job.
It required at least three years in publishing, familiarity with the hotel market and global travel, and knowledge of foreign languages. Plus, all that other meticulous stuff editors need to know.
I went to the application link, submitted my CV and writing samples, and forgot about it.
A month later, the email arrived.
The company hiring turned out to be Alphabet Inc., formerly known as Google Inc. There was a new Google Travel project in the works.
They told me that I’d passed the initial application screening! Next step was the 3-part onboarding test to assess my editing and writing skills. Each stage of this test required reading the training material and watching a detailed training video.
And then, passing three laborious tests.
It was the busy Christmas season, and with two young kids at home, I wasn’t sure I could do it. But I went ahead and tried—my very, very best. Studying and writing late into the night, even on Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
Imagine my excitement when they told me I’d passed the first test, and could move onto the second round!
…And then the third!
I’ll never forget sitting in the departure terminal in Frankfurt. One of my kids was sleeping on the bench, the other playing in the aisles, waiting for boarding time. We’d already missed our connecting flight during this trip. I was stressed, on my smartphone, corresponding with the girl handling my application. She told me I had only until the 8th of January for this final deadline.
Well, when the 8th of January came around, I’d submitted the final test and waited…
The rejection letter came three days later:
“…After thorough evaluation of your submission, we regret to inform you that your entries do not qualify you to move forward. Thank you very much for the time and effort you’ve put into this.”
Time and effort, no kidding!
Each video training course and test were done on a timed deadline, the entire process taking five days to complete. In-between that time, I was traveling solo with two kids, ages six and two.
I was gutted.
Rejection sucks, but when you’re a young mom trying to get back into the career game, it sucks so much worse.
I had put in the hours, the work, and the energy. I felt drained and discouraged.
But somewhere in that distressed state, there was a realization:
I’d passed three out of four tests to become a GOOGLE TRAVEL EDITOR, I told myself, that’s something!
From now on, NO ONE would tell me I was not qualified to move forward.
I could, and would move–just on a different path.
I decided that this writing business was what I would set out to do this entire year. From home. From anywhere in the world.
Getting rejected from the Google Project was a stepping stone in my journey.
It taught me several things:
- What I was capable of
I could do as little–or as much–as I wanted. Gifts like time, space and freedom were on my side. I would keep sending in applications to other companies.
I would not quit writing.
- That I could work from anywhere in the world
I had worked from the airport. I later worked from the football bleachers where my son practiced his sports, and in the back room of my daughter’s ballet lessons. And, at the beach.
- It Introduced me to the World of Virtual, Remote Working
Prior to the Google project, I hadn’t known that cloud-based technology was enabling 50% of Americans to telecommute. I didn’t know a freelancer could earn a decent living from agencies like Scripted. Or that actual movements like the Hoxby Collective, formed to champion flexible #workstyles like mine, even existed.
There were plenty of other jobs; countless other clients. Life went on and truly surprised me.
I have since had wonderful opportunities. Writing for brands like Adobe, social storytelling for groups such as the Italian Red Cross, and chatting with a NASA scientist working on the Orion Mission to Mars. Discussing philanthropy with delegates in neoclassical palaces in Milan, then learning patience while perfecting home-made risotto from friends in the tiny lakeside village where I live.
This past year, I wrote over 300 articles across the Internet and ghostwrote on multiple subjects. From Elon Musk to the Kardashians; from charity groups to medical marijuana. I get to drink wine and write about it. It’s a lot of fun!
I work with researchers, transcribers and translators in different continents. I’ve since learned how to delegate tasks so that I can focus and do my best work. I have an amazing husband who fully supports my desire to work from home fulltime. It means he gets to have more quality time with the kids. (Besides never having to pass me his wallet anymore!)
And, in-between writing, I can paint, my other passion, and spend focused moments, even hours, with my kids. I’m doing what I love, and it has made me able to love them better, more completely.
On most days, there is creative space, and joy.
But let me be honest. This past year, I also:
–cried a lot
–shouted excessively at my children
–was tired, short-tempered, impatient, complex
–was only human.
Love and forgiveness–this is what keeps us living. Keeps us making sense of it all.
Disappointments ensure we stay on the right path. Our children give us meaning and remain our purpose, our source. Our muses.
My wish for you, dear reader, dear moms, or if you are still trying to decide which path in life to journey on, is simply this:
Allow yourself opportunities for just being human.
Accept the various stages of growth, just as you accept the growth phases of your children.
Where there’s life, they say there’s hope.
But there’s also rejection, rawness, ugliness, even darkness, disappointment and deaths. That’s all a part of our being.
Let’s not let the year end without knowing we gave it our best shot at living.
December isn’t over yet. There are gifts waiting to be unwrapped. Some of them will be disappointing; others will bring us sheer joy. But let’s accept them all. Let’s learn from each one.
Even if it’s a letter of rejection in our inbox.
Yes, you are qualified, every day, to keep moving forward.
One of the most important things you can do as a mom is taking time out for yourself. It’s easier said than done, and it often requires two things:
- Having a supportive partner who understands your need to take time out, whenever you need it
- Letting go of any “mommy guilt” you may be feeling about leaving your children and/or partner to do something completely for your sake only.
I’m lucky to have that number one; number two, I’m still working on.
So last weekend, I took the train without any children tugging at me, and took off for Milan. Overnighted at a girlfriend’s, spent the next day sleeping in, sketching, reading, being still and silent.
Had to force myself to not do any work for the entire day, and it was a bit hard! I was tempted to check emails, follow-up on clients, brainstorm for new articles and edit old ones. But in the last week, I worked quite nonstop late into every night.
It felt good to relax, finally.
We went for Thai massages at a nearby spa after a late breakfast, and I got to practice speaking Thai with the masseuses. I can’t remember the last time I’d felt that relaxed.
I got to have time to stop and notice the street art all around me, snap photos of the busy city and interesting city people, tourists and travelers, linger at street markets and let my eyes and mind wander.
Here are some photos of my day.
Of course, I got lots of undisturbed quiet time for my art journals, too…
Candles, cinnamon rolls, and planning my next travel adventure!
Sometimes we get so busy taking care of our families, of others, that we forget that the best thing we can do for them is regaining our own joy, those little things that make us happier humans.
Little things like:
Getting enough rest
making time for wellness
doing things that you love
shopping, or window shopping
a relaxing walk through the forest
a solo bike ride
a perfectly brewed cup of coffee
a deep conversation with a dear friend
…whatever your style of taking time out.
My kids and husband picked me up at the train station Sunday night, and it was wonderful coming home to that feeling of peace, love, and thankfulness for each other.
When was the last time you took time out for yourself? How did you feel? Did you notice it having a better effect on your overall life, work, or attitudes? Were you more creative, well rested, or refreshed?
Most importantly, did you let go of self-guilt?
“Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for. Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us.” — Maya Angelou
After many weeks of work (have done over 60 articles across the web this year alone), I took a couple days off to do nothing but enjoy my children, my husband, swim in the lake, eat gelato and sketch.
I know now why artists must do what they do. Even though on most days, making art itself may not pay, it’s what brings us back to our soul.
That is the miracle of the journey in itself.
Creativity expands us in other ways. Handwriting poetry and letters to my children has become a form of meditation and way to de-stress.
There must be some scientific explanation for this—you know, when doing creative things opens up other pathways in the brain, making it work faster and more efficiently.
This is what sketching does for me.
After enjoying the entire morning with friends, feasting on a Sunday lunch, eating, drinking telling stories and sketching, we returned home. I felt like it was not a day wasted, but a day so worth it.
Then, while my son watched the Euro 2016 finals on TV, I sat beside him in the living room and churned out 5 articles (for work) in 2 hours. It didn’t even feel like work. A couple of thousand words; they flowed with ease.
I know why—because I’d spent some of my day doing what I really love—the bonding, the drawing, the friendship, the time with family.
Next week I join my first Urban Sketchers session, painting live nudes in Milan. I’m excited to continue this journey!
Seeing, absorbing, and recording life with my pencil. Thank you for following my art journeys, will post more updates over the next couple of weeks that I plan to create more.
Artists or not, we need more of this. We need to do more of what makes us come alive, and connect more with those who help us live fully.
Do you mind if I stay for awhile
In my own head?
There are words I’d rather meet
In there instead.
Do you mind if I let the waves
Lap up the shore
And just remain silent here
And say no more?
Do you mind if I just kept this moment
It doesn’t seem the right time
For anyone else
Even when we don’t speak, it’s perfect
Do you mind? I’m thinking that I miss
On the shores of Lake Como, under the shimmering light of summer, I spy them.
Returning from a kayak session across these deep waters, the bright yellow canoe approaches, sending gentle ripples back toward us.
My kids recognize them, too, and wave: “Ciao, Nonno! Ciao Nonna!”
The elderly couple paddle closer, waving back.
They are here every single day of summer, this aging pair. Sometimes with their yellow kayak; other times returning with their tiny, blue, battery-powered boat. Often, just bathing together in these healing waters. And she’s always got a cute bikini on.
“Buongiorno!” the old man calls back to us.
“Ciao!” chimes his lovely wife. She wears white today. Every inch of her body is as it should be: graceful, aged, alive.
Emerging from the water, he takes her clear beach bag and hat, and hands her a towel to dry off. She turns around, letting him pat her back with the towel. Tiny details that signify a life of loving, tenderness and care.
The old man takes his wife by the hand and leads her to a shady spot under our willow tree. Then he stands a moment, hands on hips, facing towards the looming montagna in front of us. Just gazing.
He’s taking in this moment fully—admiring the azzurro Alpine mountains that cast emerald reflections on the lake. I’m not sure exactly what thoughts he’s thinking, but the light in his eyes tells me they are happy ones.
He turns to me and notices I am painting in my art journal.
“Do you paint a picture every day?” he asks.
“I try to paint three every day,” I say, jokingly.
“Bellissimo!” he replies. The Italians I have met here seem enraptured every time they see an art piece–as if they aren’t already surrounded by some of the most amazing artworks in the world.
Two striped beach chairs are placed here side by side every day. She opts to sit on the rocks so she can splash her feet in the water’s ripples while reading her magazine. He leans back in his chair, content with the day’s giornali as a wakeboarder whizzes by. Sailboats glide in the distance, blown by a light breeze.
It’s a perfect sketch journal moment. I reach for my aquarelle block and ink pen.
I want to ask them how long they’ve been together, the secrets of their happiness, and how they came to live on these shores.
I love to watch the elderly couples strolling or swimming romantically on the lake. And here, there are many of them. I wonder what all their stories are, how much time has passed between them…how much time is left. I don’t yet speak enough Italian to say everything I’d like to, but if I could, I’d ask them to spill the secrets of eternal love. What does it take to keep that kind of commitment, and still enjoy each other’s company after so many decades have passed? Someday, I’ll speak enough of the language to communicate in theirs.
The next day, we meet their daughter, a woman my age who is visiting from Milan with her three young children, their grandchildren. She tells me that her mother and father, ages 72 and 73, have been married for 45 years.
Nearly half a century.
And still, they seem like teenagers—her, in a different orange floral bikini today; he, with his wide-brimmed hat, offering the kids a lift in their boat.
I continue the picture, adding watercolors to complete it. Of course, my paintbrush doesn’t do the subject—Lago di Como—justice, but it’s not that easy to paint perfection.
The Hungarian pianist and essayist Franz Liszt tried to describe it in the 1800’s. And he did so quite precisely:
…here, under a blue sky where the air is soft, the heart expands and our senses open to all the joys of life. The accessible mountains draw us upwards to their green peaks, rich farmlands flourish on their slopes, and the chestnut, mulberry and olive trees, the corn, and the grapevines, all give promise of abundance. Cool waters temper the sun’s heat. Splendid days are followed by voluptuous nights. Here, a man can breathe freely, surrounded by friendly nature…not disturbed by gigantic masses. He can love, or he can empty his mind and relax, since all he seems to be doing is enjoying his share of the general bliss.
The nonno and nonna take a peek at my picture, and their granddaughter joins them in looking.
“Bellissimma! Complimenti!” Nonna gushes. “Grazie!” She thanks me profusely.
Yet it is I who am grateful, every day given the gift of a share of their “general bliss”.
So I gift back the picture, packing it into nonno’s waterproof pouch. He thanks me again and says he will display it proudly in his lake home, together with all the pictures and artworks he has received from his children and grandchildren.
I’m glad for a gift back to them–a glimpse of their life and this special moment. What I love about the picture is that they are together in their space, yet each separately buried in their books. Two different individuals, joined for 45 years.
They wave goodbye, and climb the steps leading up to their lakeside home.
“Arrivederci! A domani!”
For it really is–as true love is–what the Italians say: never goodbye, but only, until we meet again.
“If in your dreams you see a woman whose heaven-sent beauty is not a snare for the senses, but a revelation to the soul, and if a man with an honest and pure heart appears there beside her, write a moving love story about them and begin it with the words: “On the shores of Lake Como”.—Franz Liszt
Visit My Art Shop and Wine Paintings Gallery here
“Creation is forever individual and it always involves an accumulation of small acts as well as decisive strokes and sweeping integrations.”—Shaun McNiff, Trust the Process
On Wednesday, the kids and I will be boarding the flight to Brussels. We are participating in the benefit conference dinner where I will sell my paintings in support of a Foundation for kids with HIV in Kigali, Rwanda.
I am excited, thrilled, and more than a little nervous! I have not shown my work in this way in quite a while. The last couple of years, I have focused entirely on my children, adjusting to life and relocation (integration!) in Europe, learning new languages and cultures, and surviving as a mom of two.
But at the start of 2015, I decided to open my heart.
I allowed myself to get back to myself. To just be me.
That was something crucial I had to ask myself at the start of the year:
“Who am I?”
Who am I, without the kids? Who am I, without my husband? Who am I, without my works? Who am I in my most vulnerable, yet true self?
What makes me happiest?
What makes me come alive?
Parenting opens up a whole new world that grows you, casts a load of responsibility on you, but it also does something else:
It opens up your own heart. Makes you more capable of loving—of giving, beyond yourself.
The mistake that, in my opinion, many new mothers make, is we lose ourselves too quickly.
And then we forget to get it back.
We may focus on getting our pre-baby bodies back, work on being good wives, partners, and mothers, concentrate on tending to all the details that make up a functional household. We build a new life, we create a family unit; we love uncontrollably, unconditionally. And that is all okay.
But what really happens when our own SELF gets a little forgotten? What happens to our SOUL on this journey?
We may give up our own dreams, hopes, and desires.
We may tend to stop loving ourselves, stop giving ourselves what we in fact truly need.
How then, can we really give the best to our children, when we ourselves are lacking? How can we be the best for them?
I have seen it happen so often: the sacrificial parent, who struggles and strives to give his or her children the best—each time, to their own loss.
So in essence, asking myself how to give my children and my partner the best, I wanted to know how I could be the best sense of me, for them.
That is really what I wanted to answer myself.
The restlessness that every new mother feels in her heart is something put there for a reason. And I had to find out mine.
My mind flashed to a conversation I had had with someone when I was the managing editor of a major magazine. Busy with a career, all grown-up in the adult world.
“I used to be an artist,” were the words I’d used. “I used to paint.”
And saying so, scared me!
Was I born an artist just so that, when I grew up, I would remember creating and painting as a distant memory? Would I forget that I had been given gifts and talents which had the power to create something positive? That, having never gone to art school, I could somehow paint portraits that would allow others to visualize the world in a new way? Could I still make an impact? Could I still make art that mattered?
That was the scary thought: I used to be.
That was when, at the start of the New Year, I intentionally DECIDED I would BE the artist I was born to be. Little by little, I started to create. Got back to painting, got back to the things I loved. Rediscovered many forgotten senses—including my sense of self.
In the weeks that followed, I silently took this artist journey, surprising and delighting myself with the world. Creating just because it made me happy; painting to please nobody but me.
(Journal, 17 March 2015): Since giving myself permission to enjoy, live, and love, all those things have been coming naturally. I open up my hands and heart to an abundant space, one uncluttered by things. One which enables me to live more freely, more adventurously. To love unconditionally. The joys are found.
Soon after, we took the kids on a trip around Germany, visiting Leipzig, Berlin, and other big cities.
From the impressive Babylonian architecture in the Pergamon Museum, to the top of the Berlin TV Tower; from the dimly lit Indian restaurant where we enjoyed samosas and curry with a dear friend from Manila to the Magdeburg Boat Fair and the Magdeburg Dom, Germany’s oldest Gothic Cathedral.
Photo Credit: zastavki.com
We space-rocketed to the moon at the planetarium in Jena and stopped in at the original Rittersport Chocolate museum in Waldenbuch. We also watched a rare Solar Eclipse and marveled at the universe, before heading to the movie theater for an hour of “Shaun the Sheep”.
And as we traveled, I felt the sheer wonder of discovery.
The joy of childlike awe—without childlike tantrums.
As we took our little ones along, I took my artist self along—not passing judgement; not feeling judged. Things flowed. Everything had its place and space and time.
(To be continued)
“To know what you prefer instead of humbly saying Amen to what the world tells you you ought to prefer is to have kept your soul alive.”—Robert Louis Stevenson