Monthly Archives: August 2015

Observations

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.

Making pizzas in a wood-fired pizza oven.

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.

Doing it their way: H. and P. insist I hang back, so that they can walk home together.

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.

The First Fig

collecting figs 1

We begin our harvest! The first figs have ripened, given they are this blogs titular figs, I thought I should share some photos.

Locals have asked me if they really are ripe so early, but yes, they really are: luscious, glorious green figs, threatening to burst at their bases if we dare to leave them any longer. The green variety is far more prevalent here than the brown Turkey figs we know better in the UK.  collecting figs 2For a few weeks now, the children have been watching the tree eagerly, inspecting it and announcing loudly the ripening of large green figs. The birds, wasps and ants ate the very first ones, tucking into them just as we were planning to leave them one more day for perfect delectability. But we managed to collect a few and shared them out in all their fresh glory.

figs on board

The tree is laden and there is another smaller tree further down the olive grove. H. and P. also have their eye on two other trees which seem to be on no-man’s land, so fair play for those who reach them first. I have a suspicion that we may be learning a true lesson of gluttony if we try even to eat all the fruit from our tree.

Even as we bite into them plain, freshly picked from the tree, we plan how next to eat them: P wants to sample a genuine gladiatorial breakfast – apparently Roman gladiators ate porridge with figs and ham. P. has the gladiatorial outfit (thanks to Grandma’s clever handiwork), the sword and home-made cardboard shield. All that remains is the correct food and a trip to the Colosseum. H. likes the idea of figs and honey, followed shortly by fig pancakes; Tom is keen to try to dry them and fill jars for winter feasting (I’m not sure how we’ll keep the insects off them, but like the idea). No doubt I’ll be on cleaning up duty after making the above, but if I get the chance, I’ve my eye on Jamie Oliver’s Crostata di Fichi and I’ll also make a fig variation of my favourite date slices. Faced with a glut it will be fig jam galore, which come to think of it will be pretty good alongside a slice of Seggiano Pecorino cheese for an afternoon snack…

La Polizia and P.

Never has anyone been so pleased to receive a parking fine as P.. Sheer delight flooded his face when he saw the ticket and heard that not only had a real, live policeman left it for us on our car but that we needed to go to find the real, live policemen in order to pay it. I think P. would be pretty delighted if we were pulled over for a road-side spot check; he is always the first to point out the carabinieri when we are out and about: “Look, Mummy – police car, on the roundabout! Look the man in the other car is getting out – and the policeman is talking to him!”. I can almost hear him wishing that we, too, were in that situation. For me, I am happy if my interaction with the polizia municipale remains confined to the odd parking ticket. So, when I announced last week that today was Fine Paying Thursday, P. dropped his Lego mid-build, dressed himself carefully in ‘Polizia colours’ – blue and white striped shorts and blue and white striped t-shirt, his ‘smart’ gladiator sandals and his cap, carried all the bags to the car, found his water bottle and cap and was ready to go! I fear the police station itself disappointed somewhat, but he did get to say ‘ciao, buon giornio’ to three real, live policemen (!), noting to me afterwards that ‘one of them was not very friendly, but one of them smiled at me!’ The closest we got to a photo was the flags outside the commune with the fleet of police cars outside and a proud P. in policeman blue looking on. For the time being, I’m content for this to suffice.

 

p comune

 

Milestones

pool 4

We have been in Italy for two months; when we arrived on 15 June, the swimming pools here were closed, (it being too cold at 25 degrees centigrade for the Italians to swim). When they did open, la Principessa  threw herself kamikaze into the ‘big pool’ while H. and P. hovered nervously in the shallow pool, the latter wearing arm bands and both clutching their support networks of noodles and floats.

Initially, I enquired about swimming lessons, thinking that we should nail the swimming lark once and for all, with some Italian tossed in for good measure. Fairly exhausted, however, by my Negotiations with Franco on the entry fee and fully fatigued by the immense heat, I didn’t muster the strength in the first few weeks to discuss lessons, when they might be held and how much they would cost. What fortuitous and financially prudent laziness this proved to be…

… For, after a week or so, H. summoned the courage to swim with her noodle in the big pool; P. followed soon after, but only if accompanied by either Tom or me. Since then, both children have gone from strength to strength, working out for themselves what they want to do, how and when… but in each case spurred on by something – or someone – other than water antics and a need to cool off: H. made remarkable leaps (quite literally) soon after befriending the youthful lifeguard at the local pool. After many smiles and much ciao-ing, H. made him a picture and things soon progressed to ‘guarda me in piscina’. My 7-going-on-17 year old was clearly set to impress: the noodle was abandoned and H. started jumping from the pool edge and then from the diving board. In seven weeks of enjoyment, fun and H. doing things her way, we have achieved more than we have in seven years of swimming lessons. Swimming: tick.

P swim 6As for P., things were progressing more slowly until we met ‘E’. E. is one of the lovely twin daughters of some friends out here, some seven years P.’s senior. A day playing at E.’s house in their delightful pool saw P. move from noodle and arm bands, never straying far from the steps, to P. senza-noodle jumping from the side of the pool and well out of his depth in order to be near E., his leaps accompanied by requests to ‘be partners with E.’ in the water games we were playing. We owe much gratitude to Cupid’s fleet arrow – this day saw the start of a far more confident P., who now swims in the big pool without arm bands, albeit quite close to the security of the wall.

I would not have believed, however, that either child would have had the confidence for this:

rock pool 1

We found this new freshwater swimming spot, icy cold and complete with fish, tadpoles and frogs. Tom, of course, jumped straight in from the stone platform you can see in the picture, which impressed H. and P. hugely. It’s hard to tell from the picture, but it’s probably about seven foot above the water level.  The measure of their water confidence was sealed when both children proceeded to follow suit: P. skirted about on the edge for a while and initially seemed to decide it would be too much. H. took up the challenge, jumped and swam to shore. As a second child myself, I could read P.’s mind clearly – anything you can do, I am going to have a good shot at too – and he was in. Swimming: double tick.

La Vita … Formula 1

Living on a remote track in an olive grove with a stunning view necessitates a life style transition from walking to car. Accustomed as I was, whatever the weather, to dropping la Principessa into our beloved Silver Cross and setting off with H. and P. running or scooting alongside me (anything, so long as it was ‘at pace’), this new car reality takes some getting used to.

Fresh out of school at 18, a group of friends and I drove to France (yes, I’m a crazy chick, no shenanigans in Ibiza for me). I didn’t think twice then about driving on the right in unfamiliar territory – and this was in the dark ages, before mobile phones and SatNavs – how did we manage it? In my 20s, I hired a car and drove round Syria and Lebanon becoming accustomed to much gesticulation and horn hooting from irate locals to whom rules of traffic lights, road systems and giving way don’t apply.

So really, driving in Italy should be a breeze, but Italian drivers are something else – this becomes clear as you cross the border from France. Do they don an imaginary crash helmet to embark on a personal Formula One track each time they get into the car? If you come to visit us in Italy, these are my top motor related tips.

  • The left and right hand side of the road bear little relation to the positioning of oncoming vehicles; indeed any number of facts can affect road positioning: wanting to drive in the shade; wanting to avoid a particularly hazardous road surface; wanting to take the racing line on a bend/round about/junction.
  • There’s a need to be in the lead: it’s boring being behind another vehicle, so overtake when possible. Hair pin bends, the peaks of hills or when the car in front of you signals to turn left – these are all perfectly bonafide positions from which to overtake. In fact, the narrower the gap before said hazard, the better – it’s all about the F1 track you’re on, after all.
  • Modification to the above ‘when the car in front of you signals’ – by this I mean, when I signal to turn left – ours seems to be the only car in this area which uses its indicators, or at least, uses them before the event. Italians make their turn, and then occasionally flick the indicators on as if to acknowledge the preceding manoeuvre.
  • Pedestrian crossings may be for pedestrians, but take them at your peril: there is no guarantee oncoming vehicles will slow down on seeing someone step out onto the stripped road.
  • Roundabouts are round, but there ends the comparison to such junctions in the UK; do not assume merely because you are on the roundabout that cars joining it will give way – see above on both the need for speed and the enjoyment of keeping distances between vehicles and hazards as close as possible.
The only vehicles round here likely to hold one up on the road.

The only vehicles round here likely to hold one up on the road.

  • Drive at speed at all costs: the only cars likely to hold me back on the road are the clapped out ‘tuc-tuc’ trucks required for accessing the uppermost roads on hill top towns.

We are acclimatizing, though, while still retaining our far more British habits. I’m attempting a single-handed reformation of Italian drivers, hooting fiercely when someone overtakes me dangerously, this is invariably followed closely by the children chanting, ‘Crazy Italian driver!”.

We recently went to meet a friend holidaying nearby: according to SatNav it was to take 75 minutes. I set off with the children, heading over the mountain to the other side. We were seemingly in the middle of a fairly barren plain, but only 30 minutes away from our destination. As we neared our turning off the strada principale, we saw a small barrier across the road we wanted; the sign post was covered with netting, the closure fairly categorical. But there the Italians left us – no diversion signs, no indications of alternative routes. We carried blithely on our way – I assumed another road heading in the same direction would appear shortly. But as we continued further up the strada principale, Mrs SatNav became more and more insistent: ‘Turn around where possible. Turn Around Where Possible. TURN AROUND WHERE POSSIBLE’. It would appear that, not all roads lead to Rome, or Montepulciano, in this case. We turned around where possible and headed back, double checking that the road we wanted really was closed. Yes, definitively closed and definitively no indication of alternative routes.

Mrs SatNav was thoroughly confused by the road closure, insisting on this route, so I resorted to a good, old fashioned, paper map, both relieved that I’d remembered to put it in the car and vowing that I would teach H. to read maps. Thus we continued on our now fairly circuitous way; there were very few cars in sight, even fewer when we turned off the main road onto a gravel track. I was slightly dubious, but there was a road sign to Montepulciano and I reasoned that we did at least have the right car for off-roading. After 15 solitary minutes on this road, I started to mull over what would happen in the event of a breakdown. How would I even begin to explain where we were in my still nascent Italian, particularly when I didn’t even know precisely where we were myself? Fortunately, this eventuality did not present itself and our cross country route spat us out on another main road, a short distant from Montepulciano. Driving up to the popular medieval hill top town on a one way system skirting the edge and finding a parking space big enough for our beast of a car was altogether another story, however…

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