Breakthrough sounds like this:
From P: “I played the whole day with V. and V. [the Italian boys of his age]. We did ‘costruzione’ and in the afternoon we played with macchina.”
And like this, his hand dangling out of the car window: “I love the olive groves.”
And tonight like this, “Mummy, I want to be in this good mood all this evening and all tomorrow morning.”
From H., looking up from her drawing last night, sotto voce “Mummy, I really love my school: senza zaino.”

Breakthrough feels like this:

Four mornings with no tantrums, despite the fact we have all woken up heinously early, at 5 or 5.30 a.m.
Four evenings with children who have giggled with each other while drawing and colouring; started to make up a dance to perform and have begged me to load the dishwasher, no less.
Four evenings in which we have cuddled up for stories without having to have a good old ‘sorry’ first.
IMG_5091Thus I am tentatively suggesting that we have turned a corner. It’s not a hairpin, (which, by the way, on ascents and descents from the mountain, the children love) more a gentle curve. Just a few small steps forward for the family, no giant leaps for mankind required.  Maybe it was simply a matter of time, maybe Operation Settle the Children helped, the first strand of which was welcoming Octavia into the house; it continued thus:

1: Love Bombing

Or a bit of Love Bombing: this is basically a way of a parent spending one-to-one time with his/her child, but it’s special time, because the child gets to choose what they do and normal rules don’t apply. We took the principles of Love Bombing and over the last two weeks we adapted it in the only way it would work for us. In reality this took the shape of P. spending an afternoon with Tom in the garden, stacking logs and digging a big compost hole. P came in buzzing from his ‘workman jobs’. We’re trying to snatch a bit of time on our own with each of them, time in which we do our best to bite our tongues and let them lead. P. and I made cupcakes together. H. and Tom had some time shopping and chatting in the local town. Nothing jazzy, more a conscious effort on our parts to try to get ourselves out of the rut.

2: A Taste of Home

SCD Fridays! Home Comfort, it would seem, is a bit of Strictly Come Dancing in front of the fire. They were tickled pink when we got it working. There’s no television in the house, which is great, and no one has missed it, but with the autumn evenings becoming chilly, we all enjoyed curling up on the sofa and indulging in pure entertainment.

3: Home School Fridays for P.

Until ‘Breakthrough’, P had categorically refused to engage with the Italian boys of his age. The barrier marked his frustration: he is not with the older, English speaking boys in H.’s class and this has both annoyed and confused him. His barrier compounded his frustration as he limited himself to playing exclusively with the English speaking children girls in materna all of whom are delightful, but considerably younger than him. To get him out of his rut, Home School Friday helps him feel a bit more grown up. At the same time, it shortens what is otherwise a very long week for him. On the whole, H. has been quite mature in understanding why she is still going to school on Fridays. Home School Friday also means P. gets some more Mummy Time. Not quite Love Bombing, but Lovely Time nevertheless.

  1. Fior di Bach (Bach’s Flower Remedies)

Game for anything, I took the advice of a friend and the children are having ‘Magic Drops’ a few times a day:

Walnut – the most important one for us, it helps children to cope with change;

Impatiens – to help them feel less stressed and encourage more cooperation;

Sclerenthus for moodiness and needing to find balance.

As with all ‘alternative therapies’ how can I measure if it’s working? I can’t. But I’m quite happy to carry on for a bit, especially given the change I’ve seen since starting it seven days ago. Might start taking some myself, too.



Castagna and Olive

IMG_1444The last time I went away ‘for a year or so’, I was ‘sola’: 21 and apparently fearless. My then-flat mate messaged me today: ‘You’re brave. Hope it gets easier for you’. Surely not as brave (or foolish) as spending 15 months in a war zone? We drank a great deal of the old vino rosso there, too, she pointed out.

That was a terrain of olive trees and rugged hills too. But there the similarities end.

Here in southern Tuscany, I can segue into the good times. Our personal “challenges” have dominated my thoughts and this blog, because the transition to scuola Italiana has been overwhelming. It’s inevitable that throwing children into enormous change will bring difficulties and we have naturally had our doubts about this whole plan. Besides, hearing about beautiful sunrises, crisp autumn days and stunning walks would probably start to grate somewhat…


That said, in between all this ‘Operation Settle the Children’ business, we are having fun! October here on the mountain is busy. Everything has come at once and we have been keen to see and involve ourselves in as much as possible, so this weekend – which has been deliciously mild by day – we have harvested olives with our new (!) friends and been along to the local ‘la castagna in festa’ – for this, the town is turned over for two full weekends to celebrating chestnuts, with the ‘cantine’ (cellars) of the old city opening up as little bars and home-spun eateries, touting all sorts of chestnut-laden dishes.

IMG_0022 IMG_0044 IMG_0040

The chestnuts are fat and ‘la castagna’ are a serious business here. For well over a month now process of cleaning (pulizia) has been going on: the mountain has been a patchwork of smoke rising from bonfires as the ground under the sprawling chestnut trees is cleared, ready for gathering. I’m told that elderly ladies sit and sort the chestnuts into three different sizes ready for roasting, selling or turning into some dolce or other. There’s even a dedicated verb for this – peculiar to this region: capare, in case knowing it might be of use.

IMG_0023The town was heaving when we arrived at midday, yet apparently this was nothing compared to the night time shenanigans, which had finished only hours before with the last cantina closing around 5 am. Tom and I will be back, one year, to enjoy a very different ‘la castagna in festa’… For this year, though, we were content to wander the main corso and take in the smell of roasting chestnuts while browsing handicraft stalls, filled with everything from exquisitely crafted chestnut wood bowls, spoons and toys (yes, we bought The Boy a carved wooden sling shot…) to deliciously beautiful scarves from local alpaca wool: gorgeous, decadent but most definitely something for the Save Up For list.

IMG_0035The children bought raffle tickets. Or rather, we gave them the money; they chose the numbers. I was keen on first prize – a night for two at a local agriturismo – but would happily have settled for third – a hamper of locally produced delicacies. Alas, we had no more luck in this small town raffle than we have in the National Lottery. For the latter, it’s largely because I don’t buy tickets, so I had rather hoped for a better return on my 4 Euros on this occasion.

IMG_1445The olives we ‘helped’ with are massive trees, grand and gnarled, growing on a steep incline and harvested in a traditional way, by hand and with rakes as well as by pruning the loftiest branches during the gathering. The nets are spread under the tree and staked in at the lower edge, to create a barrier to collect the olives. Needless to say, the children thoroughly enjoyed hammering the stakes in (a useful by-product of which was surely that this proved an additional outlet for P.’s angst…) Lower branches can be combed virtually by fingers or using the rakes, raining black and green olives down to the nets. La Principessa helped out, carefully harvesting individual olives with plump, dimpled fingers and rolling them down.

I’ve finally had a definitive (I hope) answer on colour: the ripe black olives make the oil creamy and smooth, while the less mature, green olives, give it the all-important astringent, bitter kick. A good harvest wants a mixture of both.

IMG_1449It’s easy to see that as a livelihood, growing olives is charged with emotion and could turn on a bad summer; the harvest itself is labour intensive, protracted and laborious. But as an interested, willing participant, joining in on a sunny day, it was therapeutic, timeless and relaxed. To pick olives gently by hand, the children running wild in the groves and down to the river with their new found friends, within an extended family, was to feel a sense of the ageless grandeur of Nature. How incongruous to snap photos on smart phones which reached our families hundreds or thousands of miles away nanoseconds later. How ironic that even in the midst of all our modernity, Nature could have turned this year’s idyll in an instant: last year the crop was blighted first by the unusually wet summer and later by the olive fly. Most farms produced not even enough oil for themselves, let alone for sale and subsistence.

At the end of the morning, we tasted the Real Thing: the oil from olives picked earlier in the week, taken in the first delivery to the press in the village. There is no going back from Extra Virgin Olive Oil now. Our family food budget has just amplified.


Meet Octavia

Meet Octavia.

Octavia 2

Weighing 770 grams and smaller than a bag of sugar, we nevertheless have big hopes for the effect Octavia might have on the household.

It would be fair to say that, as parents, these have been our hardest weeks so far. (I mean in life. Not in Italy.) I was going to write ‘challenging’, but I’m not so fond of that word; it dilutes experiences, in the manner of modern day school reports, sometimes so euphemistic that they border on pointless. Yes, the children’s behaviour – and particularly P.’s – has been ‘challenging’, but it’s more salient to say that it has left us feeling despairing, lost, fearful, terrible, exhausted… The details of the behaviour are less important than the reasons for it; the ways we try to find to cope with it and how it leaves me feeling as Mamma. Wrung out.

All those words and feelings that we might not dare admit.

view 1Self doubt has been chipping quietly away at days replete with golden sunshine, crawling in and disturbing the beauty of the mountain’s crisp autumnal beauty. Why have we come here? What precisely is the point of this experience? Why exactly did we choose to disrupt our comfortable, comforting existence in the South East of England, where we had friends on tap, family ready to help out and our own British rural idyll: a green village, a lane filled with friends, a small village school in which our children knew everyone by name?

Rationally, we know that this has to be the hardest stage: though quick to adapt to change, children nevertheless need time and support to get them through that change. So, in between struggling, crying and reaching for a glass or several of vino rosso, Tom and I have been trying to think about ways to help them – and us – cope with starting school and settle into a calmer space.

OCtavia 3

Octavia is Strategy 1 in ‘Operation Settle the Children’. I hasten to add that finding another cat was inevitable. Once a cat owner, always a cat owner.  Coming home to a house senza gatto to look out for and look after has been hollow, uncomfortable and disorientating. I am not ready to replace my Zephyr cat, but the household was ready for something to love.

Tom and I thought again about what Zephyr had meant to the children: a connection to our life in the UK; a physical reality linking them to our house there; a still point in their turning world. We considered the timing of his loss: only five days before school started, at the end of our summer of discovery, just as Reality was kicking in. Recently, P. took Tom to ‘talk to’ Zephyr by his pear tree. Later that day, after spinning out with sparks flying, Peter finally succumbed to cuddles and cried and cried for Zephyr. It clarified that Zephyr had become symbolic; he had linked our life here with our home there; to P., losing him felt like cutting out that previous life.

Although Octavia cannot be a panacea to our current situation, given the inevitability of another cat joining our family, we decided that it was worth finding one sooner, rather than later.

When we saw her, the runt of the litter, smaller by half than her brothers; grey and white with big green eyes, she could have had our name written on her. Finding a name for her proved another matter: four heads came up with suggestions, from the ridiculous, ‘Pane’, to the obvious ‘Grigio’ to the confusing – she was Quintina for 24 hours, but when yet another member of the extended family queried this, asking if she’d been part of a litter of five, Tom was finally persuaded to agree to my, ahem, our, first suggestion, apt at least for the month in which she came to us. Octavia she is.

The long term effect on the children remains to be seen, of course. For now, I can report that the children dote on her, rushing to gather her up after school, cuddling up in bed with her cradled gently on their laps in the morning and planning to spend their pocket money on kitten teddies for her to play with. Our evenings have been a little calmer, morning rages have  reduced to one in three.  We are far from feeling over the worst of it, but now at least, when everything gets to much, we can all go and cuddle the cat. It’s hard to stay cross with a little kitten purring for attention.

octavia 4

A Question of Books

The biggest hurdle for me when deciding whether to execute ‘Project Move to an Italian Hilltop Despite the fact Tom Will Commute for Work to and from London’ wasn’t the logistics of said commuting. It wasn’t concern about being lonely on said hilltop. It wasn’t the language barrier.

It was books.

I wasn’t sure how I was going to surmount this book hurdle. I know some of you would answer with just one word: Kindle. But I’m not there yet. (I was still playing cassettes a year ago, so be kind, please.)  There’s nothing like a book to hold in your hand, turn the pages, lift the flaps if you are only 18 months (and actually the 5 and 7 year olds secretly still enjoy that), smell the smell… you have experienced the crisp smell of new books?

I travel. My books travel. Their books travel.

Well, some of them had to. The first six (-ish) that had to come in were:

Lavender's Blue

We love Lavender’s Blue, (ed. Kathleen Lines and Harold Jones) a beautiful edition of a wealth of traditional nursery rhymes, many you will know and love, many more quirky surprises from yesteryear in there. A gift at birth, it is well thumbed still by H., aged seven. First in the box: hours of delight from pictures and words.

DAulairesB_0You will remember that P. is a bit of a fan of Greek Myths – who wouldn’t be? One eyed Cyclopes and one hundred eyed Argus, three headed monsters, three bodied-beasts, man-ravaging Minotaur, invisibility caps, winged sandals… it’s child heaven – what’s not to like? I have bought/been gifted/snaffled from my childhood home quite a few versions of Greek Myths over the years but D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths is my definitive ‘take it with you’ compendium. It has all the classics and more: take Tantalus, the foolish son of Zeus who decided it would be a good idea to sacrifice his son to the Gods; they were pretty cross when they discovered this, so condemned Tantulus to perpetual suffering. So they trapped him in water to his neck, yet he could never drink – the water ebbed back as he bent down to it. The branches above his head were laden, yet he could never eat – the branches bent out of reach as he tried to pick. Tantalizing stuff. Plenty to enthrall young imaginations.

each peach pear plum

We’re spoilt for choice with children’s picture books. How to choose between classics such as Janet and Allan Ahlberg’s Peepo and new favourites such as Julia Donaldson’s Toddle WaddleLa Principessa likes a shoe (whether it fits or not), so the flip flops in the latter always prove compelling. As do the feet – bare and shoed – at the end of Eric Carle’s less familiar Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What do you Hear? But at the end of the day, Janet and Allan Ahlberg’s Each Peach Pear Plum with its little dog and finely detailed illustrations is the one I couldn’t leave behind.

How to choose story books for older readers that will delight for more than one reading? Am I allowed a box set? The good thing about writing a blog for yourself is that you choose the boundaries. I want a box set? I get a box set. Or maybe two.

snicket-2So, in a rare move allowing newbies in first, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is top of the list. As H. had read the first three books in the last two weeks before leaving the UK, there wasn’t much choice in the matter but this is only a good thing. Nothing cutesy or indulgent here: catapulting the black of fairy tales into a full length, protracted story of quick witted children surrounded by evil intent, the Baudelaire orphans’ story is one to be read and re-read as the children’s understanding grows. Love the story, love the language, particularly Lemony Snicket’s delicious explanations not only of the youngest orphan’s infant babble but more importantly of the more complicated language used in his writing. If you haven’t got it on the shelf yet, don’t mess around buying them individually!

For my second box set, tradition rules and we have the full series starting with Anne of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomery. Anne was a very useful companion to a non stop chattering girl, possibly slightly given to melodrama, as she grew up, she ‘never did the same wrong thing twice’. I have, but I think of Anne and try not to and anyhow, ‘tomorrow is another day, with no mistakes in it’. Yet. The Anne series provides plenty of fodder for reads and re-reads.

rattle bag

And one which I can actually admit is also for me: The Rattle Bag., ed Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney. A glorious anthology of poetry: serious, funny, modern, ancient. Dip in and dip out. Understand and don’t understand. Anything goes; something will captivate, no matter your mood and even if you don’t think you like poetry… Pop in for a ‘Reflection on Ingenuity’ from Ogden Nash:

‘Here’s a good rule of thumb:
Too clever is dumb.’

And then there’s H.

The late summer tempests of my H.-girl, have passed, for now, at least. I’m not sure that the fire has blazed fully since week 2, when, missing that precious ‘getting to bed’ slot, over-exhausted, over-whelmed and over-wrought we found ourselves in a pretty state. H. was beside herself. I was beside myself. Tom would have been beside himself, but, 600 miles away, he remote-parented in, proving to be a rational, calm voice, removed from the emotions (and no doubt hormones) of two thirds of this family’s female contingent.

The next morning, H. experienced that which – I admit it – I know only too well. The churning stomach. The quivering lip. The welling eyes. The knowledge that there is no stopping it: those tears will come.

The call came at 10.40 am, from the caring Maestra B.: ‘piange, piange, piange… non so perché.’ Ah-ha. I knew only too well why H. ‘was crying, crying crying’. Poor little girl, sleep deprived and removed from the security of home, she was feeling bad about her outburst, her tantrum, our argument of the night before. It’s that feeling which, at seven years old might be hard to name, and at 37 years old, might be hard to admit. Guilt. It was our argument: she had provoked and I had allowed myself to be provoked. We had both shouted. I didn’t feel as though I’d been the adult taking responsibility for her anxiety and helping her through it. While she had been crying in school, I had been struggling myself, running errands with la principessa cuddled up safely in the sling, my mind turning over The Argument and how to manage my oldest girl, so alike me in temperament that the call from school had come as no surprise. So alike me in temperament that her fires are the hardest to manage even while they are the easiest for me to understand.

calm after storm

Blue skies, literally after a storm

And so it is that I can also understand her behaviour since. Mollified since this outburst, she is now officially in Worry Mode. Worrying about me when I am not with her. Worrying about whether she will cry at school. Worrying in the evening about saying goodbye. Then worried when she says goodbye. All this worry, worry, worry. I can almost see the worry lines on her forehead grow to imitate mine. Philip Larkin, I’m not sure I am quite so cynical, but you have a point. As I hear her worry that I am going ‘all the way to G. to drive Daddy to the station’, I see eight year old Amy, standing at my brother’s window late at night, worrying about my parents while waiting for them to come home from an evening out, my mind a fever of calamities and ‘what-ifs’.

I want to scoop up all H.’s worries and push them back into the box, to tell her that the worries are safe with me. I want to tell her that it is all right, that I will be all right, that we will be all right. But it’s shaky ground, isn’t it? Her worries may well be disproportionate and we hope that they will always prove to be unfounded, but they are legitimate, albeit extreme, worries. I am no psychologist, but I feel that she has entered a new stage of childhood. Her awareness has shifted: she has started to fathom beyond our household, both physically and emotionally; she is better able to perceive a realm of possibilities.

summer passing

How strange for me to observe that we have brought our children here to give them a sliver of what might be possible: to open their eyes to others’ lives as well as to their own; to allow them to experience that things don’t have to be ‘thus’; to show them that choices can be made to do things differently. And these aspirations are being realised – either tangibly or subliminally. For me, the incongruity is not that other, unsought possibilities inevitably run in tandem, but rather that plunging ourselves into this experience has brought into sharp contrast the dichotomy. Choices, possibilities, potentials. They are wonderful, life enriching and I am only too aware, particularly in writing this, that we are so very fortunate to be able to make those choices, to push on the open doors … But for a small girl, with an open heart, their inverse is proving to be a thought provoking step forward in her own journey. I looked at H. tonight before I wrote this and I saw in her face something of the H. I might see in ten years’ time. The way we are talking to each other has changed. I have a feeling that were we not here, it might have passed me by, ‘imperceptibly as … Summer lapsed away’*. But for H., the slipping away of summer proved a catapult into the unknown. For that reason I am grateful, even for the tantrums that came before, because I want to remember this transient moment ‘into the beautiful’. To me, this is the essence of being ‘mamma’.

*Emily Dickinson’s lovely words. Don’t feel obliged, but it’s here if you like it:

As imperceptibly as Grief
The Summer lapsed away—
Too imperceptible at last
To seem like Perfidy—
A Quietness distilled
As Twilight long begun,
Or Nature spending with herself
Sequestered Afternoon—
The Dusk drew earlier in—
The Morning foreign shone—
A courteous, yet harrowing Grace,
As Guest, that would be gone—
And thus, without a Wing
Or service of a Keel
Our Summer made her light escape
Into the Beautiful.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

An exercise in patience


dawn 2

I had expected the first month or so to be hard, but I hadn’t really anticipated how that ‘hard’ would manifest itself.

P. has been going into school relatively easily* which I know must be a good sign. It is how he has come out that has flummoxed me. On his first full day – and these are long days from 8.30 am to 4.30 pm – I had dinner totally ready, in anticipation of hunger. That was one thing I managed to do right, luckily. For P. came out ‘arrabbiato’ in the extreme: from the moment we left school, he shouted at me and squabbled with anyone who responded to him. The mood did not subside on feeding. I managed to remain calm.

Operation Proceed to Bed ensued. We struggled through bath time. It didn’t help that La Principessa chose that moment to feel thoroughly justified in indulging her rather horrible cold. Thank goodness for a fortuitously well timed visit from Nonna: responsibility for S.’s bedtime, which promised to be anything but tranquil, was devolved forthwith.

I snuggled into bed with P. who insisted on having milk ‘like S.’, something he dropped many moons ago. I indulged.

We chose our stories. At the end of several Greek Myths (a current favourite of his; after visits to Rome and Pompeii we are apparently off to Mount Olympus to sacrifice something at the altar of the ancient Greek Gods), he insisted on just one more. Despite the whiney voice, I indulged.

I snuggled him down and kissed him goodnight. A few minutes later another plaintive call: he was hungry, apparently. This ‘hungry at bedtime’ thing quite frustrates me: while clearly a procrastination technique, I can see that, when little people are busy all day and eat tea early at 5 pm, they might feel a bit nibblish by bed time. I reason that one cracker or plain biscuit is worth it both to satiate any potential hunger and to sidestep potential conflagration. A biscuit and a drink of water were therefore duly doled out.

Five minutes later, P. called out again, this time asking to sleep in my bed. At this point I wondered how many more demands were going to be made. My instinct was to say no. So I said it. Bother. How many times, as mamma, have I said no on instinct and then realised that really, really, I should follow through on my words. It might well be the teacher in me, but I reckon that setting out boundaries and sticking to them is not a bad place to start as a parent. In retrospect (and ever wise after the event), I might have thought before bed time about what my boundaries were going to be. Did it really matter if he slept in my bed? Probably not. Unfortunately I had said no and initially I tried to follow through on it. Following through on it was not particularly pleasant. This is an honest blog, so honestly, I will write that the next hour was horrible**. P.’s behaviour was thoroughly unpleasant. He ‘hated me’ and ‘hated me’, he kicked at me and threw teddies and pillows at me. I tried shutting his bedroom door and leaving him to it, but he pulled it open and jeered at me. At one point I stood him outside for some thinking time and immediately felt bad while waiting for him to come in, standing helpless against a background of S.’s protestations. Cries to the left of me, screams to the right, H., stuck in the middle, thankfully choosing that evening to be calmly writing and drawing.

What surprised, shocked and troubled me about this rage was the jeering and taunting that came with the anger, so unlike anything I have experienced from any of my children. I have had them angry, tired, needing to let off steam after a hard day at school, but that night, P.’s behaviour seemed deliberately mean. Can he be deliberately mean? I’m not sure he can, but he wanted me to be properly upset; he wanted me to cry. I realised this as I sat on the floor in his room, both properly upset and crying. I think that, subconsciously, P. wanted me to feel overwhelmed and out of control, just as he feels at school.  Both struggling to operate in another language and, as the oldest in the scuola materna but not old enough to go into scuola primaria, he is neither betwixt nor between. P feels at sea, and he wanted me to be at sea too.

Finally he climbed into my lap. At last he let me cuddle him. He sobbed his little heart out. He was sad, he said, because the day was so long; he wanted to see me and be close to me and couldn’t. At night, he didn’t want to wake up and not know where I was.

Ah, those bitter sorrows of childhood: they may not be so new and strange to us as adults, but their pain for me is ever more acute when felt through little arms curled round me. And so the day ended with me thinking a little more about being a child and learning a bit more about being a mamma. Parenting: no qualifications required; training on the job; start at the deep end and see how you fare. Anyone a taker for one of the hardest jobs around?

*Relatively, relative to H., on whom more anon.

** It’s an honest blog, but it’s also abbreviated. Suffice to say that this was not an isolated incident. We had the same behaviour the next morning. And the next bedtime. And I think we will see it again, despite the boundaries I try to set for myself and for them.