I feel for H. and P. This was brought home to me this week when we met a delightful English family at the pool. Furtive whispers were exchanged between my two: ‘I think they’re speaking English! Yes, it is English! I heard it! Do you think they know we are English?’ Their excited words distilled for me how isolating, in some ways, our first few months in Italy have been for us and for the children in particular. Starved of conversation in their own language with people other than family, both children delighted when the lovely Northern teenagers responded to their obvious need – H. and P. were bursting with pent up conversational energy – and played with them.
This strange semi-isolation will change, of course, when we start school in September, but in the mean time, our transition to this rural spot and the nature of the way in which we have started our adventure over the summer months, during which it’s much harder to meet people and make friends, brings other observations.
In their ‘isolation’ – for want of a better word – H. and . have formed a veritable little double act; but in their reliance on each other as playmates, for distraction and for emotional support, they are also becoming increasingly resourceful and self sufficient.
When we came home today, P. reminded me that the figs needed picking, in part because the tree is virtually heaving under their weight and in part because it might rain tomorrow and they have realized that the torrential downpours we have had, while a relief from the intense heat of the last six weeks, have not benefited greatly our precious crop.
With bags to unpack, dinner to throw together hastily and an overtired Principessa grabbing a short doze, fig picking was low down on my priority list. H. and P. sorted it out for themselves, though: they found the right (unbreakable) bowl from the cupboard, H. climbed the tree while P. stood below to catch the figs; both of them used various bits of bamboo to lever the less accessible fruit and came through to the kitchen, proudly bearing their load.
I was ready to receive a bowl of under-ripe fruit, picked too early, but ate humble pie when they came in. It’s a reminder – one that I’ve had quite often here – that children are capable of so much more than we sometimes allow them to be; ‘allow’ them both literally, in the sense of permitting them or giving them the opportunity to do something; or more figuratively, in the sense of how we might unintentionally limit our expectations of them.
H. has taken to dressing la Principessa in the morning – choosing the right clothes, taking care to check she is balanced properly, talking her through the process so that she knows what is going on. When we go to the cold plunge pools, P. is keen to explore, scrambling over rocks well into the distance on his own: he feels safe because he knows we are not far off and is aware of boundaries and limitations; he points out stones that might be slippery, tree branches that might be in the way and water that might be deeper. They both already have a great sense of geographical surroundings, coming home from Siena at the weekend on a road we have only been on twice before, P. remarked that ‘we’re going to come out near V.’s house’. Even la Principessa, at 17 months, left to her own devices simply because I cannot give her the attention I would have given to a first child and because of the nature of our surroundings and life here, often surprises me: picking windfall plums from under our tree, she passes them to me after a few bites to remove the stones; getting ready to go out for the day, she goes to the hat box, finds everyone’s sun hats and distributes the correct hat to the correct person; at breakfast time she makes a fair attempt to open the children’s drawer and find their bowls and cups to help lay the table.
I’m reminded of how much children used to do ‘in the old days’, before we moved on and realized – quite rightly – that children have the right to be seen and heard. As we have progressed, our lives have become full of potential in enlightening, energizing and mind-broadening ways, but that same potential is double edged: while travel, technology and the trappings of modernity offer the possibility of adventure, fun and discovery, they also offer more sinister ‘maybes’ and ‘what ifs’. And this is arguably felt most keenly as a parent for whom a carnal protective instinct is created with the child.
While books, films and the memories of grandparents might remind us of the supposedly halcyon days of unfettered freedom enjoyed pre-internet, fast cars and fast paced lives, we often listen to and enjoy these stories knowing they are somewhat rose tinted: with the smooth, there is always a rough. Our 21st century minds will almost invariably choose our own 21st century smooth and bear the consequences of its rough edges.
But I can’t help feeling that our rough potentials sometimes tip the balance for us as parents. Our over protective culture, knowledgeable of danger and consequently often erring on danger averse, coupled with modern day fears over children’s general physical safety has limited their freedoms not only outside the home, but also inside so that sometimes we unknowingly forget to allow children to rise to taking responsibility for themselves, even in the smallest of ways.
As parents, we have so much pressure on us to ‘do it right’ to ‘achieve’ in parenting in the same way as we might achieve at work but it feels to me increasingly that we are missing the point.
Children want our time, they want us around them, but they also need to be given space and opportunities to explore at their own pace. I feel fortunate that here I’m able to allow this more easily than I might have been back in the UK. In a relatively safe environment, it has been natural to allow the children more freedom.
Living off the main road, on gravel tracks travelled by perhaps a handful or so of cars and tractors a day, I can relatively comfortably allow the children to run to boundaries that we have set, ahead of me and out of sight, or down to the lane to gather blackberries or find figs. I am learning to counsel myself that they are fearful enough of vehicles that they will stand aside if they hear one nearing; that they are sensible enough not to wander further than the limit I have set and that it isn’t imperative that they are within sight at all times. Simultaneously, being here on my own with them for days at a time, I have had no choice but for all three children to have had more freedom than previously: I simply cannot do everything for all three of them all the time, every day. On the bad days, I try to do precisely that: I burn out and we all end up shouting. On the good days, I try to turn my exhaustion round, giving them tasks and responsibility. When I manage this, I am unfailingly rewarded not simply by the delight I feel when they respond happily, willingly and helpfully but by the energy this gives them to show me what they can do: unasked, unprompted and unaided.
Further Post Office Peculiarities
Last week, we had an update on the old Post Office scenario. Going in as usual to collect my post, I was greeted by a new figure – Signore Post Office, it would seem. Signore Post Office insisted he knew nothing of the arrangement made with Signora Post Office to hold my post in a box and wanted me to outline the entire post box requirement saga afresh.
On completion thereof, he shuffled several papers together and announced two options available to me: I could have post delivered to a local friend in Castel del Piano (Friend? Locally? One to whom I can have post delivered? We are far from those dizzy heights); or, I could choose the ‘aspetta’ option, and pay the Post Office to hold my post there for collection for any length of time I wished.
I failed entirely to understand how this second option was in any way different from the informal arrangement Signora Post Office had made with me, other than the requirement to pay for it. In any case, what I really want is a post box so I can access it when I want, rather than being beholden to opening hours and the lamentable queues in the post office.
Unfortunately, much to my frustration, I was unable to communicate this to Signore Post Office in my 400 words of Italian learned with Elisabeth Smith, (I’m onto pronouns – ‘si, lo prendo’ or ‘non lo prendo’ rather than ‘I’ll take it on the conditions outlined to me by Signora a few weeks ago, rather than this new option with which you have decided to present me’), so I left with papers full of very tiny print of no doubt incredibly bureaucratic Italian tucked under my arm, together with a hot, bothered and now screaming Principessa. And one has wondered why la Principessa always has a tantrum when we go into the Post Office?
I brought the papers home and promptly forgot all about them. Since then, I have been back to the Post Office on several occasions to retrieve post from my cardboard box from la Signora. There has been no mention of papers, paying or other services, so I will continue in my own way, feigning misunderstanding if Signore Post Office makes a future appearance. Sometimes, ‘non parlo multo Italiano’ can be quite helpful, I feel.
On a happier note, as we left the Post Office, for some reason we started chatting to a lovely lady who spoke French. On easier linguistic territory here, we chatted and it transpired that this Alessandra is in fact not only a teacher, but a teacher in Scuola Materna, and not just any Scuola Materna, but the very one which P. will start in September. P. beamed with pleasure when he found this out and I am greatly relieved that P. has a face and a name to associate with school. P., it is fair to say, is finding the transition to la vita bella more difficult than his sisters. Of course, la Principessa just beams with blonde beauty as every Italian nonna in town passes her with cries of ‘la bambina bellisima, complimenti’ and H. happily declares that ‘for the first month we won’t understand anything in school, but then – we’ll just be talking Italian and coming home and teaching you, Mummy!’. P., conversely, is most anxious about starting, worrying about not understanding what people say to him and wondering how he will know what to do. It is one month until we start school and I myself am becoming nervous about the next step in our Italian Adventure.