Why it all started: Scuola Italiana

13 weeks with three children, one fig tree and a continual stream of adorable chatter combined with exhausting demands and “the odd” temper tantrum: one mamma was faintly relieved, to put it mildly, when the day finally dawned.

The start of Scuola Italiana.

Truth to tell, despite their worries and fears, even the children seemed glad to be forced, finally, into routine. The last few weeks of the holidays had become increasingly fraught: daily visits to the vet combined with the children’s pre-school nerves and there was much demanding, attention seeking squabbling and bickering. The kind of behaviour which requires oodles of patience from parents. I hold my hands up: my reserves were low.

For the last few nights before the big day, P. wanted to sleep in my bed, and he spent the nights fitfully, snuggling ever closer for reassurance. H. at this stage was more confident, waking in the night only, ‘because I’m so excited Mummy’.

The first day itself was ultimately much easier for P., as we met a little half English girl of a similar age a few weeks ago: a fireball of energy, she’s a feisty match for P. Once his little friend, A., had arrived, P. was happy to go in to his little ‘scuola materna*’ unaccompanied by Mummy and there was barely a backward glance. He was saving his worries for frenzied night time calls to me, ‘Where are you, Mummy?’ has peppered my sleep over the last week.

H., who had been so brave at home, so pleased with herself in her black smock (they wear their own clothes and cover them with the overall – a simple idea which would work brilliantly if they all wore them), looked petrified as we made our way into the school. As she fretted over which was her peg and when she would put the picture of herself up over it, my heart ached for my little-big girl. I can rationalize to myself why we are doing this and we can talk objectively about what it will be like: H. herself is given to telling people quite confidently that, ‘for the first month I won’t understand anything, but then it will be fine’, but there is no way I can be with her head and her heart as she sits in the classroom, amid a cacophony of sounds she will be struggling to understand. So conscientious and keen to do right, it will be hard for her not to know which ‘right’ is being asked of her.

Last week H. had decided to go by one of her middle names, as this was more Italian and ‘would be better for everyone’. I think the first morning at school was fairly complicated by this , indeed, I watched her introducing herself in Italian, and could see the ‘confusione’ was doubly demanding – not only another language, but also another identity! By Day 2 she came back saying that she had decided instead that everyone should call her an Italianized version of her real name!.

school 1 to cropI stayed with Italianized H in the classroom while the children began the day in the ‘agora’, the cushioned circle time which marks the beginning of every Senza Zaino day, when the children talk about their emotions and plan the day’s or week’s activities collaboratively with the teacher. H. kept looking over to me for reassurance. La Principessa was delighted to be with big sister and went over to tumble into circle time with her. H. onto la Principessa for reassurance and snuggled her onto her lap. Maestra B. passed a ball of wool round the circle, encouraging the children to introduce themselves, following their name with ‘mi piace…’ and ‘non mi piace…’ (I like… and I don’t like…). H. looked anxiously at me for something to say. We had a little whisper and I could see her practising her lines. H. looked ever more panic stricken as the ball of wool came her way. I waited while she bravely managed her name, then ‘mi piace i libri’ (I like books) and ‘non mi piace la confusione’ (I don’t like chaos). In fact, I think 14 out of 15 of the children in the circle, by which I mean the children in the whole school – yes the primary school, from ages seven to 11 – said that they didn’t like confusione – a comment which Maestra B. had started with. As I left, two of the boys, who should have been sitting down, looked to me like they were clearly going to be the cause of much confusione for the poor teacher.

The view from the school field.

The view from the school field.

Walking back to the car holding only La Principessa, with no one pestering me for information or attention, with no other little hands to hold as we crossed the road and with the peace that comes from no one squabbling, I felt hollow and lonely. We have been a close knit, tight community for the whole summer. Just us, la famiglia, together in our adventure and while I have been craving some time for myself, the reality of leaving the children in a strange school with teachers I had met only fleetingly before only dawned on me as I drove back down the hill. Had I given the children the ‘don’t go home with anyone else’ lecture? Were they sensible enough not to leave the school grounds without me? Would the school phone me if there were a problem? The first day of pre-school or school in England can seem unsettling enough as a parent who has perhaps only left their child with family or friends over the years, but I hadn’t quite appreciated how it would feel here in Italy. I had left them in classrooms with children they had never seen before, in an unknown language, about to embark on an unfamiliar routine. Even if I question for other reasons why we moved the children before we gave the initial school a chance (a delightful foray into more Italian bureaucracy, about which you will hear more anon), I am glad that going to this school gave P., at least, one ally in his class when he started: the handful of playdates he had with A. before the start of term gave him the confidence to go in alone. H., on the contrary, was begging me to stay with her, but, despite the fact I had expected to do so, I could see that ultimately this would hinder more than help her. While I can support outside school as much as possible, at the end of the day, the children have to overcome these nerves themselves, by being in the classroom and realising that they can do it. The first month, at least, is going to be tough and I can only hope that my instinct that it will give them strength of character, rather than perpetual fear of the unknown, will hold true.

*Scuola Materna is the equivalent of Pre-School, P. just misses the cut off point to be allowed to enter Scuola Primaria this year.

The Zephyr-Cat


It may have started as a joke, but he was, in a manner of speaking, our first child: we even took two days to decide on his name: he was to be Boris at one point, Bosh at another. But Zephyr stuck and struck everyone. The night we brought him home from Brighton was fiercely windy: it whipped our faces as we walked down the hill with our precious grey and white bundle in his wicker basket. We took the train back to London, but indulged – for us, a great indulgence – in a taxi to our house, to protect him from the wind which became his namesake*. A lofty name with a story for a cat with a beautiful and distinguishable character.

We took him ‘home’ to my parents for our first Christmas and dad joked that we cradled him like a baby. He even took umbrage on realising that the real Bambina Number One was to arrive and showed us this by sleeping in her cot, her pram, having a good snuggle up on fresh sheets and new blankets. He was taken to joining us in the bathroom and basking on the mat when we bathed H.. He was similiarly affronted, though more resigned, when he realised that more trouble was on the way with P. – with a cat’s sensitivity, he understood pregnancy possibly before I even knew it myself.

Zephyr cat

He acclimatized to the children, though – he knew exactly what was coming when the cot came out for la Principessa – and was indulgent to the point at which H, out of anyone, was able to hold him in all manner of ways – most commonly her arms clutching his middle while his front and hind legs drooped down inelegantly. She was the only person to whom he never showed a claw of anger. Perhaps seeing the moment of her birth itself, in our first family home, predisposed him to softness towards her.

The vets here noticed he was a good boy – a temperament probably vastly different from the fairly wild cats around here – but even in Essex we knew it. When a neighbour acquired an adorable and totally audacious kitten who used to come into our kitchen brazenly seeking fun and frolics, Zephyr would barely bat an eyelid – indeed we fairly had to show him that there was another cat on his territory. He seemed unconcerned by this fellow, seemingly he was indulgent of the youngster’s antics and fondness for larking around.

We have been wracked by guilt for the past few weeks, blaming ourselves for bringing our beautiful and hitherto healthy cat to Italy, arrogantly assuming his strong constitution would stand him in good stead here against unknown viruses. We joked in the UK with the vet that we were spending more money on him pre-Italy than we had in years: he was given every injection and booster under the sun and acquired his own pet passport which itself required a microchip.

z on walk

Zephyr taking a walk with us shortly after our arrival here.

Z 2

And H. solicitously checks on him.

To have left him in England would have meant rehousing him, the thought of which felt like rehousing an unwanted child: “You may go now; we have adventures to seek, fun to have, which will be easier without you.” It felt right to bring him with us and it felt right to share our first few months here with him.

But taking our Zephyr to the vet, to ask for him to be put down, seemed to me to be one of the most adult decisions of my life. To make the choice to end a life, for a creature who could not speak for himself. To fathom the unfathomable: that his pain was too great and that this ignominious ending was preferable to the indignity of his suffering. Who am I to choose?

Zephyr brought home to me the essence of vulnerability: he didn’t choose to be brought here and he was not allowed to choose how to die. Was that one more humiliation for an animal so closely associated with dignity? My guilt is fuelled by the thought that he was trying to choose for himself, when he sought a quiet, shady and dark spot under a tree by a small brick wall. Would I have been kinder to have left him there, in a protracted expiration, than put him through the humility of days of treatments and interventions at the vet to try to save a life that I chose to want to try to save? Such questions are far from new, and I am not pretending otherwise.  I am also acutely aware that to many, he was and will remain ‘just’ a cat; have I suffered so little that I can mourn his loss so greatly?

But for us, Zephyr was so much more than ‘just’ a cat; in the poignancy of his death, I felt acutely his mute vulnerability; far from ‘the cat who walked alone’, Zephyr walked our lives with us, at our choosing; he was with us at seminal points in our journey as a family, growing and changing with us.  He was the first being on whom Tom and I lavished shared love.  Saying goodbye to him crystalised for me the ‘lovingkindness’ of Hardy’s poetry: the exquisite pain of loving and being loved in return.  Of saying good bye to that love and committing it to a story of memories, a kaleidoscope which will appear involuntarily, interwoven with other memories, beautiful and painful, of love and loss over the years; transient memories, to be clutched at, turned over and indulged.

100 kilometre per hour winds lashed the hilltops here in Tuscany as we buried him under the pear tree.


First experiences: the hospital

Of course it was going to happen and of course it would happen with suitably ironic timing: no sooner had I reflected on the children’s independence than my own words were put to the test. After a morning at the beach, Tom was preparing dinner while I got on with some work. H. and la Principessa were playing outside on the patio. P., naturally, was fully immersed in tinkering with Lego – creating a new construction borne of his imagination.

P. plays with Lego.

Incidentally I should probably be paying Lego childcare costs: never has a toy engaged two children for such prolonged lengths. The actual Lego sets (so coveted when P. pores over the little booklets) are but shadows of their former selves; my type A personality struggles with this and I harbour secret hopes that in autumn we will have terrible storms necessitating several ‘home days’ during which I can organise properly the kaleidoscopic shambles which are our Lego sets. But I digress.

So, I only vaguely noticed H. come inside to look for some scissors. It was only when I heard the screams that I realised that la Principessa was still outside, sitting on the stone bench. Above the stone patio. Or rather, had been sitting on the stone bench. And was now face down on the stone patio. I scooped the fallen Principessa up and, quite frankly, I probably would have been happier if I had seen some blood, which would at least have given some indication as to the injury. She had clearly blanched with the shock and would not stop crying. We tried all the usual tests: a biscuit? No. Some milk? No. (And this even when proffered in a bottle rather than a cup.) Chocolate? No. When even chocolate would not abate the crying, we decided that we were about to embark on our first Italian hospital experience. We set off, prepared for the long haul in mind but certainly not in body: not only were we all still in beach clothes but we were all – including the now poor Principessa – still adorned with the thin, slightly clammy layer of sand with which one returns from a day by the sea.

Our local town has a small hospital with a ‘pronto soccorso’ unit and it was there we headed. Where in England we would have had to register and outline the incident before being allowed even to wait for a triage nurse, here, in a quasi inversion of Italian bureaucracy, we virtually picked up our nurse as we went through to the triage room. I was intrigued that there was also none of the extreme cross examining we have in the UK, of particular relief to me as I’m not sure my Italian would have withstood it. I managed ‘ha caduta’ (she fell) and communicated the nature of the stone ground. With much gesticulation, an array of facial expressions and a stammering of Italian I managed to communicate to the gentle nurse what had happened. P. and H. meanwhile, were happy to chatter incessantly (they have yet to understand how much I concentrate when trying to speak Italian, let alone then translate the high speed volley I hear in response), as the nurse blew up latex gloves and drew faces on them. Initially sceptical of this apparent entertainment show for all three children, I realised that, of course, Nurse K. was establishing whether the whimpering Principessa would be tempted to engage at all with her brother and sister. She did so, gradually, and Nurse K. drifted off, leaving us slightly bemused and confused. However, shortly afterwards, we were taken through to the doctor’s room, from which we were referred on to the larger hospital, 40 minutes away, and, amusingly, very close to the beach we had left only a few hours earlier.

Naturally, P. was absolutely delighted to be in the ‘ospedale’, a position which afforded him a close up view of three ambulances; in fact, his delight in this proximity to a second emergency service, (hot on the heels of our interaction with the local Polizia) far exceeded any concern for the state of his younger sister’s head and he was positively overjoyed to be sent onto the larger hospital: ‘Another hospital? Are we going in an ambulance’. He was disappointed, to say the least, to hear that the blow to the head was by no means serious enough to warrant our transportation in an emergency vehicle.

Bearing papers documenting the incident, stamped and signed several times to satisfy adequately bureaucratic standards, we set off for the main hospital. I assumed that here we would meet our lengthy wait, A and E visits in the UK never taking fewer than eight hours, in my experience. So when Tom deposited us at the door and went to find food with the older two children, I was confident that he would return to find us sitting in some queue. Credit where due, however: they were expecting us – ‘si, si, la bambina piccola ha caduta della panchina’ – and we were ushered immediately in to see the paediatrician.

Suffice to say, a look in la Principessa’s ear (of which I feel sure the doctor in our local hospital would have been capable) clarified that this is where she had knocked herself, it being quite red and enflamed. We were sent home with instructions to keep a close eye on her for 72 hours and a list of signs of concussion to look for.

A mere 20 minutes after I had entered the hospital, (much of which time had been spent with the nurses blowing bubbles to distract la Principessa while the paediatrician observed her), I carried la piccolina out of the hospital. Wandering towards the main road, my beach dress looked thoroughly incongruous with dusk setting, the wind whipping up and the temperature dropping. With tear stained face, bare feet and clutching her bedraggled monkey la Principessa was every inch a pathetic waif, a forlorn princess. At this point I realised that Tom did not have his phone and I knew neither where he had parked nor where he had gone to find food for the older children. In fact, I realised that in this, our nearest city, I know only two roads: into and out of the station. It was a reminder of our over-reliance on technology. Ordinarily our mobile devices are extensions of our arms (in Tom’s case, literally, as his frequent flyer status has necessitated trialling a new Apple watch…), but on this particular evening we were under equipped in every way: insufficient clothing; insufficient food supplies and insufficient means of communication.*

Another beautiful picture of the night sky a few days after the fall.

*As will be apparent from the writing of this post after the date, we found each other on the streets in Grosseto – per fortuna, relatively quickly and la Principessa, though wobbly on her feet for a few days, is fine and back in full principessa mode – making demands in a manner too adorable for anyone to say no to her and ‘ciao’-ing her way through the day.