I am David Attenborough…

I have a ‘frisson’ of how exciting David Attenborough’s work must be. I crept theatrically round the house yesterday morning at 5.45 am, trying not to rouse three sleeping creatures, all of whom are easily disturbed when their mother attempts to leave the nest; the eyes of the young flutter open at the slightest of sounds; great care must be taken when opening the heavy wooden shutters before leaving them secured to protect the semi-sleeping young and male of the species.

Managing this feat, and armed with mobile phone for emergencies (you will recall my Absurd Incident of the Dog in the Morning) and the audio tracks to ‘learn Italian with Elisabeth Smith’ (I’ve reached the dizzy heights of week 5 through steady early morning walks solo!), my Attenborough-esque in-house stealth proved serendipitous:


The cervo (deer) was grazing just beyond our patio. In case it’s not clear from the photo (though you can see our hammock in the foreground giving an idea of its proximity to human living space), I measured the distance later in the day: 17 metres.

I stood absolutely still as Zephyr’s tail bristled behind me, his back arching in fear and protection (self protection, naturally – he is a cat). The deer saw me and standing stock still, barked loudly in a warning call, a sound which is totally new to me.

Clearly being David Attenborough is harder than it seems. I discovered that you have to stay very, very still, for a very, very long time. Anyone who knows me will be aware that I find staying still (essentially doing nothing), extremely difficult. I was quite entranced by the deer, but it was hard not to wriggle. Next, you have to have your equipment not only with you, but preferably switched on. I had only my phone, and had to fiddle around surreptitiously to turn it on without all the beeps and buzzes which give the game away. Also, you can’t keep putting your equipment away and getting it out again, as you miss the best bits. And as if all that isn’t enough, you need an extremely steady hand to record a good quality clip. Having a deer bark at and out-stare you is actually quite daunting and I was quite relieved when he turned elegantly and sprang (what is the correct verb for a deer’s graceful movement, I wonder?) away from the house.

H., on seeing the video and photos immediately asked if we could make friends with the deer – have it as a pet, maybe? I’ve recently read her ‘The Secret Garden’ and she’s rather taken with the idea of being Dickon, the animal-whisperer, insisting on regular occasions that she has a ‘knack with animals’ – be they geckos, cats, frogs or butterflies.

As it happens, between drafting and posting this entry, it seems that H.’s dream may not be quite so flighty. We were outside reading last night at about 8 pm, and I looked up to see a deer (the deer? our deer?) grazing – even closer to the house this time. Here is proof positive of my grand illusions to animal watching – not an ipad, iphone or real camera in sight to capture its beauty. Alas, we had to sit and commit this privilege to memory the old fashioned way, as it grazed, acknowledged us and continued to graze. In my memory this may be etched, but henceforth I will always be armed with some form of technology.

deer 1

The next day all five of us saw the mother deer and her fawn, only metres from the car and managed to capture them on camera.

deer 3 deer 2

As if this weren’t enough, last night I stepped outside into the cool night air and was astounded, not to say slightly taken aback, to hear the gobbling and snorting of a wild boar! Here is proof positive that I am ill-qualified for animal watching. I attempted to slip inside quietly to fetch Tom and managed to bang the shutter door in the process. Fairly convinced that this would have scared the ‘cinghiale’ away, I returned without camera. He was still there! Only six metres away (measured afterwards again) and snuffling for windfalls under our plum and walnut trees; we could hear him crunching the plum stones. Tom went back in for the camera. I went back in for a torch. He was still there – an audaciously confident wild boar (I think I would rather he were less so – I’m not sure wild boar are material for befriending) – surely we would catch him on film? No, there was a problem with the memory card in the camera. I went back in for a phone, but alas, by the time we were in situ, ready to observe the boar and narrate our own ‘Animals of the Tuscan Olive Groves’ short film, the boar, satiated from his scrumping, was out of sight.

Non parlo Italiano

This photo isn't really relevant but I thought it was too beautiful not to share.

This photo isn’t really relevant but I thought it was too beautiful not to share.

I’m now going to plug Traveller’s Italian, dubbed, ‘Italian in Six Weeks with Elisabeth Smith’. I’m all about this teach yourself audio book and hastily add that I have no vested interest whatsoever. It might surprise you to hear, then, that I’ve ground to a near halt at week three. I feel like I’m in a never-ending game of snakes and ladders: every time I climb that nice long ladder up to square 60-odd I land on the cheeky snake and am sent back to square 1.

The pergola was under construction when we arrived - but Italian with ES got me through those arrangements...

The pergola was under construction when we arrived – but Italian with Elisabeth Smith got me through those arrangements…

In my game, I’m trapped in a continuous loop between ‘Signore Pavarotti’ (“non, non, Gino Pavarotti, purtroppo”) meeting ‘Tom and Kate Walker’ on a plane, (not the same Ryanair Flight as poor Tom was on last week, I trust – six hours’ delay at departure gate… the idyll shattered – but that’s another story), and Kate Walker hampering hubby’s plans to watch sport on television in favour of dragging him shopping for shoes which were “un pochino care ma costano lo stesso in Inghilterra”*. I’m in this loop because, having started my own journey with Elisabeth Smith some, ahem, three months ago, alongside packing up the house and arranging our relocation, various other family members have hopped on board, each with his or her own demands of our trusty Traveller’s Italian course, viz.:


H. delights in asking to put ‘Italian with NOT Elisabeth Smith, but Elisabeth Smith’s helpers’ on while we’re in the car: dubbing it thus having observed during our repeated cycles of weeks one to three that the smooth talking Elisabeth Smith only pops in once a week to give us our ‘good news grammar’ lesson, thereafter retreating while her unnamed helpers chivvy us along to “speak Italian – fast and fluently”, “speak more Italian” and not worry if we get the endings a little wrong. Like her perfectionist mamma, of whom more later, H. is reluctant to move on until she’s identified the meaning of almost every word in all conversations.


Tom, taking the brunt of the financial workload and nobly commuting to enable this amazing adventure, is clearly going to have the hardest time speaking any Italian, let alone Travellers’ Italian in six weeks with anyone, Elisabeth Smith or not. Nevertheless, he’s keen to give it a go when we are in the car, and stepped on board, but only last week, hence the slippery snake back to square 1.


P. furiously denies capability of learning any Italian and insists on pointing out numerous birds of prey (a large number of which transpire on further inspection to be pigeons) while I am desperately trying to be a “fast and fluent” learner and get my endings right. Alas, my perfectionist tendencies send me slipping down a baby-snake to the beginning of week three even when I’m on my own on a walk such as that of The Absurd Incident of the Dog in the Morning. Please note that, in other situations, P. manages “fast and fluent pronunciation” of all local place names…

La Principessa

La Principessa of course is the outright winner – “a fast and fluent learner” with no concern whatsoever about her endings she is babbling away with a host of new intonations, waves to anyone who so much as murmurs ‘ciao bambina’ in her direction and has already wised up to some Italian musts such as ‘buona’ said with a finger in the cheek to mean ‘it’s tasty’ of food. She doesn’t care whether we’re on week one or six, but when disgruntled in the car, her cries rather impede one’s ability to ‘speak out loud’ as urged at all times by Ms Smith’s helpers. That’ll be back to the beginning of week three for her type A personality Mamma, then.

Three weeks of Italian with not Elisabeth Smith has enabled us to explore some beautiful Medieval towns.

Three weeks of Italian ‘with not Elisabeth Smith’, as H. calls it, has enabled us to explore some beautiful Medieval towns.

So, why am I so hot on this book? Apparently I’ve only learned 289 words, but boy are they the right 289. Little did I know how useful it would prove to hear the hotel owner worry that the shower in the room Kate had booked was broken, but perhaps her husband could fix it? ‘Rotto’ (broken) and ‘riparare’ (to fix) are probably my top two words: when we arrived our oven was broken. The shutter on the main door wasn’t quite broken, but needed fixing. The only fan in the house is almost broken. P.’s shoe has broken. In a month, I’ve had quite a bit of fixing to sort out. What with ‘rotto’, ‘riparare’ and ‘ho besogno di’ (I need), I’ve virtually conquered Tuscany. Couple that with ‘non ho abbastanza soldi’ (I don’t have enough money), and the odd ‘possiamo’ (could we) and ‘vorrei’ (I would like), I’ve even managed to sound semi-polite when asking for things. ‘Not Elisabeth Smith’ says I’ve only 161 words left until I finish the course. We’ve already learned a little of the past tense. Who knows what I could achieve if I manage to make the leap into week four. Watch out, I might start blogging in Italian…

* ‘A little expensive, but they cost the same in England.’

NB Interested parties might note that Elisabeth Smith’s courses come in 11 different languages… no more excuses!

On high days, holidays and routine


On being on holiday…

The children are on holiday and I love that they are enjoying halcyon days of unfettered freedom; I love the fact that there is no television here, that the sun is always shining and that we have, thus far, only used the iPad for FaceTime. I’m not going to pretend it’s been an unending idyll and I haven’t once raised my voice. That wouldn’t be a white lie, it would be a whopping great fib. Of course we’ve had some massively cross patchy days (me), we have had squabbly days (H. and P.) and one of us has had non-stop-grizzle days because her teeth are hurting and she’s too hot and everyone else can do things which are frustratingly just out of ability, reach or both (La Principessa).

H. and P. decide to have tea in the fig tree.

However, on the whole, the children are finding a grove; they are inventing and playing and creating and making and for much of the time they are doing it together and becoming a veritable double act. They are coming up with a plethora of new games and some of my best moments have been when I have been getting tea ready in the house and they have disappeared into the olive groves on an adventure to which they alone are privy.

P. builds a dam at the cold springs.

On needing a routine…

Nevertheless… Mamma has the potential to be ‘on call’ from 5.30 am for bambina piccola through to 10 pm for bambina grande who needs little sleep and relishes her evenings chatting on the veranda. But ‘I need a little time’ as the Beautiful South sing, ‘to think it over’.

Thus, we are attempting some structure in two ways: first, I am instigating rest time, if not proper siestas. When la Principessa sleeps in the afternoon the children must have down time: this is supposed to give me a little breathing space. I’ll keep you posted on the success or otherwise of this.

drawing 2

Secondly, a few times a week, on ‘home days’, we are doing a little activity together: either writing to friends or family or recording in some way our highs and lows; sentimentalist that I am, I want the children to have a tangible record of this experience. My lovely mummy gave the children scrap books before we left. ‘Scrap books’ is a bit of a misnomer: they are beautiful ring bound books with heavy pages and lovely covers, (the kind of books coveted by English teachers such as I); I like to think of them more as ‘these-are-for-your-best-writing-and-most-beautiful-pictures-so-please-do-them-nicely’ books.

P.’s picture of the tall pine outside our house with the mountain in the background.

P. has filled some of his diary with drawings of rockets and aeroplanes but today he drew the noisy cicadas in the tree outside the kitchen and the mountains in the background. He’s also quite obsessed with butterflies at the moment. For those of you who’ve been in touch with his alter-ego, Doggy Za’atar, you will now have to become accustomed to ‘Butter the Butterfly’. He has several records of butterfly incidents and was delighted when one landed on him at the cold plunge pools. Since then, he’s been filling his book with colourings of butterflies, which he delights in telling me are symmetrical.

butterfly 1

H. decided on a story map of last weekend’s Dog Escapade. La Principessa spent 20 minutes snatching the pens and pencils, scribbling ‘wow’-ing her scribbles and dropping all the pens and pencils on the floor.

H story H story 2

The Absurd Incident of the Dog in the Morning

The only time to walk is first thing in the morning. By first thing I mean first thing: as in, when La Principessa wakes me at 5.30, it does provide an opportunity to enjoy the relative cool before the heat of the day really sets in… And it is ‘relative’, though far be it for me to admit I might actually be too hot.

The view back to our house at the start of a walk.

The view back to our house at the start of a walk.

The landscape is deceptive – one path looks like it leads to another, which looks like it will lead back to the first to enable a satisfying, circular walk. Tom and I have both been caught out by this: Tom struggled back after a walk which easily exceeded the requisite 10,000 steps a day; I was less noble and unashamedly called out to a Signore (who just happened to have an infinity pool in his garden), and hitched a lift back. And yes, he did invite us back…

You can just about spot the hare in this.

You can just about spot the hare in this.

So, the other day I set out leaving Tom and the children apparently sleeping. I intended to walk to M. and back, specifically to avoid getting lost in any attempts to do a loop. Merrily I wended my way there, catching sight of our resident ‘cervo’ (deer), ‘lepre’ (hares) and various gecchi (geckos) and farfalle (butterflies) on the way.

The deer beating a hasty retreat.

The deer beating a hasty retreat.

I walked to the top of M. affording myself a stunning view of both mountain and valley and headed home for breakfast. I walked past the cemetery and was half way home when the barking started. Those who know me will know that I am not good with dogs. Particularly dogs without leads, not to mention dogs without leads or owners and standing right in the middle of the only road between home and me. I did attempt to continue, but the dog’s bark was vicious. In the midst of the moment – my skin crawling as I really am petrified of leadless, ownerless dogs – I wasn’t able to rationalize the bark being worse than the bite. Anyway, who knows what Italian dogs are like and maybe this was a vicious stray? I turned round and sent a hasty message to Tom: ‘Need rescuing. Dog after me. Help!’ In this technologically Apple heavy world in which our family in particular lives… there was no response.

I walked back to M. No response to my initial text or the others hastily sent after. My battery was on 6%. There was literally no one about to ask to whom the dog belonged.

I walked through M. and out the other way – which leads to a main road on which it is clearly foolish to attempt to walk. Dog versus fast cars. Clearly fast cars are more dangerous. I walked to the junction of minor and major road: this was ridiculous. And I was already too hot even though it was only 8 am. And all because of a dog. I got cross with phones not being turned on and messages and calls not answered. Then I burst into tears just at the moment a landowner tending his vines caught sight of me. ‘Italian for Travellers in Six Weeks’ doesn’t cover: ‘I know it’s ridiculous but I was out for a walk and there was a vicious, potentially stray, dog on the road barking and I’m terrified of dogs and I can’t get home any other way’. I approximated something which clearly made little sense, but if I could wait until he finished his vines, he would take me home.

Close to the scene...

Close to the scene…

Home, breakfasted and feeling sheepish and foolish over my morning escapade, I was nevertheless determined to sort this dog business out – I have been walking early on my own with the children and can’t get caught like that again. The next day, we all set out. P. brought his sword and shield to protect us against canine attack and I brought sandwiches to protect us against filial hunger-induced tantrums.

I was quite relieved that the dog was at the self same spot, with the self same bark, it went someway to explaining my pickle the day before. But my brave warrior P. passed Daddy his sword and shield and Tom told the dog to go home. At the top of the field above the road, his owner called him back. I called out to the owner and asked if we could come and speak to her – we knew now to which house our canine problem belonged.

Rosanne's eggs - freshest of the fresh.

Rosanne’s eggs – freshest of the fresh.

I’m not sure what we expected – I have confronted people about keeping dogs under control in England, particularly when I’m with the children, and they can sometimes be defensive. ‘Rosanne’ was anything but. She had already brought Nicko the dog into a fenced area and in her thick Tuscan accent she reassured us that he would ‘abbaia’ but he wouldn’t bite and that we should continue to walk happily in the early morning. She showed us round her ‘orto’ – fruit, vegetables and a veritable brood of chickens of various shapes and sizes. The rooster crowed in approval and another dog – smaller and more manageable – Zorro – introduced himself to the children. Rosanne proffered a clutch of fresh eggs as the Absurd Incident of the Dog in the Morning drew to a happy close. We have found our egg supplier, agreed a price and will forthwith willingly be walking towards Nicko the barking dog.

And the same, freshly scrambled and eaten on the terrace. Not a bad start to a Sunday. Even if we had to rise at 6.30 to enjoy it!

And the same, freshly scrambled and eaten on the terrace. Not a bad start to a Sunday. Even if we had to rise at 6.30 to enjoy it!

Brilliant blog posts on HonestMum.com

The Olive Test

Our house is a short walk from Frantoio A.– a family run olive farm. G., the owner, chattered away in high speed Italian as he showed us the factory but, save something about air being dangerous for olive oil, I had precious little to tell the children when they quizzed me on how to make olive oil.

As we left G. presented us with a beautiful bottle ‘A.’, the ‘optima’ olive oil: I should consider the quality of this olive oil to be comparable to the renowned (and expensive) Brunello de Montepulciano wine.  H. was thoroughly affected by G.’s gift, its representation of his pride and his desire to share the best with us.  I love that H. immediately started to think of things that were special to her that she could share with people who visit us.So, we were sure that this beautiful bottle was good olive oil – but the best? Not only were we unconvinced of his impartiality, we were also unconvinced of our own abilities to taste the difference.

P1170688We were, therefore, delighted when Sarah and Paolo and their children stayed with us, fresh from completing an eight day (!) olive oil tasting course. We held back on vino rosso for a bit to keep our palates clean for tasting and set out for Sarah and Paolo the four oils with which found ourselves: Frantoio A., two other locally produced oils and an oil flavoured with mandarins. We’d been quite excited by the latter when we found it in the house but Sarah took one disparaging look: flavoured oils are considered sacrilege among aficionados of the industry.


Tom and I were ready to learn and H. was delighted to join in the action.

Allora, who would have known one needs small espresso-cup vessels for tasting olive oil? I was all set to get ‘il pane’ out and dip away, but no, we started by holding our hands over the cup and gently swirling the oil around to bring the aromas out and bring the olive oil up to a good temperature.

P1170687Next a grand, ungainly sniff of the oil. This was fascinating – the smells ranged from strong, fresh and refreshing cut grass through to virtually nothing. The mandarin scented oil was another matter entirely and even at this stage, I could see why Sarah had been Lady Disdain.

After a good smell, we were to take a tiny sip of the oil, roll it in our mouth to coat our tongue then make a rolling hissing action at the sides of our tongues; wait a moment then swallow a little if desired.

Do try this at home! It’s actually really hard to sip just the tiniest amount of oil – I took far too much the first time so was overpowered by oil. I had to pause, try to clear my mouth a little before trying again. I practised the hissing swishing action with a bit of water then went for the oil. The difference between oils was astounding – I urge you to try two different oils – preferably one that’s a little more special next to a regular supermarket extra virgin oil. We had nothing at all in the region of the latter – ours were all from local small holdings, and yet the difference was astounding. The finer the oil, the more bitter the taste both at the edge of the tongue and also the slight after taste as it reaches the back of the throat. The best oil had Tom’s eyes watering with its bitterness. Sarah and Paolo were officiating and we had a clear, unanimous winner: Frantoio A. is top quality.

So, I was all set to save A Quality Oil and use it on special occasions. Absolutely not, Sarah berated me! I should use it up now and enjoy it at its best for a whole gamut of reasons – heat, oxygen, light will all be affecting this beautiful oil. Italians would say that the worst of three non flavoured oils should be used only for oiling chopping boards and the like, but Sarah and Paolo rather draw the line at this cavalier attitude to olive oil which is still far superior to any mainstream oil we find in the shops. Use the least bitter oil to cook with and enjoy the best liberally on salads, on pasta, to make tapenade.

IMG_4296 H oil picture

H.’s drawing of olive oil production after listening to Sarah explain how extra virgin oil is extracted from olives.

I fear that I might return from Italy with tastes above my station. With a far clearer knowledge now of how oil is produced and more precise understanding of what ‘extra virgin’ and cold pressed mean, I am persuaded as to why I should not buy any of the big label olive oils in the future. Here, I can source top quality olive oil at a good price… it looks like we’ll be shipping it over to the UK on our return or buying direct from our soon-to-be suppliers, Sarah and Paolo.

Negotiations with Franco

Finally, on our fifth visit to the pool, I decided that really, we had to know how much we were going to pay for this magic pass. Tom entertained the children in the water while I sought out Franco at the bar, ordered a coffee, smiled and asked how much this was going to cost us.

Franco laughed, he wanted me to be ‘contenta’, va bene – it’s okay, domani. I laughed again – come on, Franco – let’s get this sorted! Bene, bene – so how much was I offering? Franco was clearly side stepping this issue and couldn’t really be bothered to think it through or explain the costing to la signora inglesa; I am pretty sure this is ‘foreigner treatment’ and an Italian wouldn’t have got away with this. We had a chat. I knew what I wanted to pay, but I also didn’t have a clue what would be standard round here – do season passes exist in Italy, particularly in a small, hilltop town in rural Tuscany? It’s an expensive little outing to use the pool for an hour or so if you pay full whack – it would cost us 40 Euros as a family – obviously, if we were on holiday here, the outing to the pool would be a whole day activity.

Clearly, I needed a decent discount, given that we were using the pool little and often – an hour here and an hour there. Franco wasn’t given anything away – how much did I want to offer? Apparently I had to be happy. OK, so I offered 100, 150 Euros. I wasn’t sure if this was lost in translation – quite a bit of Italian flew around, the lady making the cappuccino joined in, telling me the same thing in Italian. Hearing it from two people made didn’t make it any easier to understand.

Allora, so how much are we talking, Franco? Franco pulled out some paper. He scribbled down two adults, two children, the bambina piccolina doesn’t pay. He added up how much it would cost for the family. He worked out how many days there were in the season, how much it would cost me a day if I paid the full amount every day, how much my discount would be if I paid ‘only’ 400 Euros. I balked slightly at this, comparisons to things like the National Trust and Zoo passes in England sprung to mind. I tried to communicate that I understood the principle of his calculations, but we were only using the pool for an hour at a time, we weren’t coming every day, maybe only a few times a week, maximum…. It went on.

Eventually, Franco scribbled 350 on the sheet. I feigned misunderstanding. Then I feigned the need to rely on ‘il marito’ and consult with Tom before we committed. Vai, vai – anyway, I didn’t have to pay today, said Franco – any time would do.

Tom and I had a chat (one of those ‘rhubarb rhubarb chats bystanders do in theatre productions). I pulled myself together – for goodness sake, bartering in markets in Cairo and Damascus used to be my forte – get with the Mediterranean way, again, Amy!

I returned to Franco, smiling and laughing and transferring responsibility to Tom…. 350 was a bit steep, we were thinking more like 200. Franco laughed and clapped me on the shoulders – va bene, 250 and he’d throw in the odd coffee and ‘caramela’ (lolly) for the children too.

Success, of sorts. We still don’t have a post box. They’re broken and will be for the foreseeable future…