The Great Outdoors

It goes without saying that immersing oneself in another culture serves to accentuate one’s own sense of identity, both personal and national. Immersing oneself with children amplifies this, particularly when said children attend school in another place.

our winter

The kind of winter we’ve been having…

I am reminded of how strange I appeared to locals when living and studying in the Middle East. I would walk apparently unfathomable distances, setting off to tuts and mutterings that it’s ‘ba’ed’ – far away – and impossible to undertake such a journey without a car. Likewise, I craved light and the sun and would emerge from shuttered houses onto balconies long before locals set foot outside.

Similarly, here in Italy, my attitude to the outside sometimes seems diametrically opposed to that of the locals and nowhere do I struggle with this more than with the children’s school. The first few times the children told me they’d been inside all day, I shrugged it off and changed the subject. However, as the autumn days drew in and winter months arrived, I quizzed them a little more, to be met with their insistence that they were inside all day. This was puzzling because, while we have been coasting through the darker months – December, January and now February – winter itself has yet to make an appearance. Save a week in late January in which we were greeted with stunning displays of frost such as that below, I have been struggling to find a use for my woolly hat and thick boot socks. Even on colder days, there has been little rain to speak of, certainly none of the weather that might actually stop teachers in the UK from throwing the doors open and the children outside.




And there’s another point: in the UK said children will often be outside in shorts and or skirts and socks, running around the playground, scraping knees and throwing coats off even while their breath marks the air before them. Indeed it is with a heavy sigh on days of torrential rain that teachers tend to resign themselves to the boisterous behaviour which usually accompanies days on which children have been cooped up.

Not so here: in Italy I have been scolded on mild and sunny October days for my children being outdoors without hats. One is left wondering if there is some bureaucratic legislation decreeing a date in the autumn from which hats must be worn and play must be taken inside and a date in the spring from which we can revert to lighter clothes and outdoor play.


View from the children’s school 

I broached The Great Outdoors with the teachers one morning, asking if, given it was a lovely sunny day, P. could play outside. The school has a lovely field overlooking the glorious valley. It’s a travesty not to use it. My query was met with exasperated looks and the same explanation I have heard innumerable times since: ‘if the children go outside, they will get colds and coughs; we have some children who had bronchitis last year, how can they go outside in the winter?’ This is where I find my Italian lets me down, frustrating my ability to articulate clearly the many arguments for playing outside. I try to moot whether children dressed appropriately in warm clothes might not benefit from the fresh air. I attempt to point out that keeping thirty children cooped up in a few rooms for eight hours is more likely to propagate the spreading of germs, to say nothing of the effect it will have on their behaviour. I mention the health benefits to children of daily exercise and movement.

My comments are met with blank stares: ‘fa freddo fuori, come si fa?’ – it’s cold outside, what are we to do?

I leave, vexed both by my language and by this closed mindset, yet at the same time conscious that I am the outsider who has chosen to live here. And that means choosing to take the rough with the smooth. I try to focus on the smooth, in this case the smooth that I can do with regard to school: I can take the children out of school early when I feel they need a break. I can offer my help as a parent through the banco del tempo of this Senza Zaino school movement which embraces parental engagement.

play 2

A place to play

So, to start with, I park the car 15 minutes’ walk away from school. I collect the children early most days, to give ourselves time to play outside We walk to the car, run about in the olive trees and play in the beautiful stone ruins, shouting to the skies and the birds, looking up to the mountain, which seems to approve of our outdoor abandonment. The wind catches our breath and reddens our cheeks; our fingers tingle with the cold. La Principessa races forward with her hands behind her, flying to keep up with her siblings. I realise that this is probably good for me too.

We climb into the car to go home and I start to plan how I can take the outdoors into the children’s school day….



The Walkie Talkie Walk

P1020161Walkie Talkies topped both H. and P.’s letters to Father Christmas this year.  Father Christmas evidently concurred that this was a great idea and H. and P. each opened one half of a pair of walkie talkies on 25 December. La Principessa looked on, eyebrows raised, ‘Me?’ I attempted to distract her with a rather lovely painted wooden recorder from her stocking… however, I think Father Christmas is already resigned to another walkie talkie appearing in the house well ahead of 25 December 2016.

Up, dressed and full of the day’s excitement, we suggested that the children play outside with their new toys, to test the range, while we sorted out breakfast before the grandparents arrived.

Some ten to 15 minutes into the range test, the children finally realised that walkie talkies work best if both participants are using the same channel and I popped outside to see how they were enjoying this new form of communication.

I found P. armed with a long pointed stick, ‘I’ve got my spear,’ he announced, ‘I’m going to walk down to Granny and Grandpa’s!’

Really, I asked – on your own?

He was adamant and apparently fearless.

I asked H. if she wanted to go with him. No, she didn’t.

I tried asking again, this time suggesting that she should go with him. No, she shouldn’t, apparently: ‘P, you go, I’ll stay up here with the walkie talkie and check you’re ok,’ she said. I liked her inversion, presenting staying behind at Base Camp with the walkie talkie as an important role of responsibility, thereby deflecting attention from the fact that she was secretly a little afraid of walking down with P, alone, to the apartment their grandparents were staying in.

By this time, P. was at the bottom of the drive, radio-ing in. ‘I can hear you, Mummy. I’m on the lane, I’m ok’.

For a minute, H. toyed with the idea of joining him – she even ran down to the lane, only to turn round the moment she was off the boundary to return to the security of the house.

Meanwhile, the intrepid explorer and his spear had dipped out of sight. I should explain that I could see the end point for which P was aiming. It’s about 20 minutes walk away, all on the stone tracks that pass for roads cutting through the hills and olive groves here. We’ve done the walk together countless times, and I was under no doubt that P. knew the way – it being only two turns, would not get lost and, on Christmas Day, there was likely to be none of the ‘traffic’ that we do sometimes meet passing to and from the olive press.

Nevertheless, this was a Milestone with a capital M. It’s one thing to know the route, to make a judgement that it’s safe and not to be worried about cars on roads, it’s another to watch your five and a half year old boy walk off by himself, with his trusty spear (and walkie talkie). I tried to put myself in his shoes: what does it feel like to be five years old, walking down a lane surrounded by nothing but the silence of the olive trees (and one’s walkie talkie)?

I’ve thought before (here) about the notion of labels such as ‘danger’ and ‘dangerous’ and the fear with which we, as parents, imbue our children. It’s a well-intended fear, borne from love and fuelled by a primal desire to protect. I know that from an early age, I taught my children to stand away from cars, to think about where they were walking, to look before running across the road. Though I might have tried to explain rationally, very real dangers meant that in practice this often became an alert: ‘Don’t!’, Stop!’, ‘Careful!’ and ‘Watch out!’ peppered our walks to school in the UK. In trying to teach them that we need to take care around cars, amongst other things, I unwittingly instilled in my children fears which at times have become distorted and as they become older, I have seen them worry disproportionately in spaces and places where I feel considerably more comfortable. H.’s reluctance to walk down with P. was a manifestation of just such a fear mingled with her own need to be ready, at her own time, to take that kind of independent step.

So when P. took to the lane on Christmas Day, I felt fortunate that we are in a space in which he can make bold choices and gain so much strength from the satisfaction of doing something on his own. I burst with pride when he arrived at the gate to the apartment and radio-ed in. ‘I’m here, Mummy, I can see Grandpa’. His little voice crackled down the line, a fitting reminder that, only 50-odd years ago, the notion of children running wild all day in the countryside would have been commonplace. How far we have come in such a short time, and yet what have we lost?

Apparently he slipped into the apartment with Grandpa and sat down to a bowl of museli. When he came back up to the house later, I asked him how he felt. ‘Good, Mummy. It was a bit scary. But I knew my way.’




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The Chocolate of Delayed Gratification

It would appear that, unbeknownst to me, I am in the midst of my own quasi-Marshmallow Experiment. Before I continue, I should just caveat:

  • this experiment with only three participants is probably too small to be considered scientifically sound;
  • there is no ‘control’ with which to compare results from the three participants;
  • the experiment is being conducted on rather an ad hoc basis, in that it was stumbled on and not preceded by a clear methodology.

With this in mind, read on.
The Chocolate of Delayed Gratification at Casa Doust runs thus.

cal 4We have three advent calendars. I bought this nativity scene a few years ago: every day we add a small paper cut out – the star, the sheep, a shepherd etc. etc., until we reach Mary, Joseph and finally the baby Jesus. We use it every year and enjoy the familiarity of what is added and when.


cal 3The second is a paper calendar or two sent by a grandma or two. This year two: a lovely red circle with a painting from the National Gallery and a delightful Christmas card advent calendar.




cal 2The third is a handmade pocket calendar sewn and given to us by Grandma when three other Gibson-siblings, now in their late 20s and, ahem, rather late 30s, were wondering who would be allowed The Original Sewn Calendar from childhood days gone by. Fond memories of our Christmas tree on its navy background will be nurtured in the house of Gibling the Younger and we older Giblings are consoling our sentimental sides with the handiwork and love of Nonna’s new creations. We move the marker daily and remove the hidden treat from the pocket.

The hidden treat. Herein lies our would-be marshmallow. The Advent Angel fills the 24 pockets with small chocolates. This year, they happen to be rather fine specimen from a delightful local chocolate shop. There are 24 pockets and three children, thus I have three each of eight different chocolate types. It’s all very egalitarian. Everyone will get one of each type of chocolate. She or he just has to wait his turn. As we near Christmas, on the last three days, there are two extra small chocolates in each pocket – to satisfy mounting excitement and, as it turns out, to reward delayed gratification.

As Advent approached and anticipation and excitement built, the children realised they would get to open an Advent Calendar every day, but only get to move the pointer in the chocolate calendar once every three days. They had some discussions about who was to go first. Even S., realising something interesting was going on, joined in with, ‘Me, me, ME. ME!’, asserting her right to participate.

H. very generously announced, ‘P. and S. can go first, I don’t mind’. Her generosity and altruism was immediately rewarded when she calculated that, as we rotate in order, in letting the others go before and waiting until 3 December for her first chocolate, she would also get number 24, which obviously has particular status. Bingo: the rewards both of generosity and of delayed gratification.

As an aside, please note that, because nobody was stressing her out about learning or using her times tables, H. readily, easily and of her own volition, used her three times tables to work this out. More on what motivates children to learn in another blog – for now, suffice to say I’ve been thinking about this kind of thing a great deal recently.

The reason I am writing about this, though, is because of what happened on Day 1, as P. jumped out of bed in a frenzy of high energy excitement: ‘Advent! My day on the chocolate calendar!’ S. joined in the shrieks of delight and charged round the room squealing after her brother. (She’s quite infatuated with him at the moment, and spends most of every school day talking about him, thus: “P. P.? P? … Ahha, P…. Ahh, P.’, I think it’s partly because she likes the fact that she can say his name.) Needless to say, 21 month old S. was perhaps not quite so au fait with this turn taking lark as P. and H., but we explained that she would have her turn. Tomorrow.

As P unwrapped his golden square of chocolate, with anticipation not incomparable to that of Charlie searching for a golden ticket, he stopped and looked at me. ‘I will give a bit of it to S. and a bit to H.,’ he said…

… Altruism and kindness shone forth and I could almost see his halo. I was delighted.

‘And that means that tomorrow, when S. gets the chocolate, she’ll have to give some to me. Right?’

The halo dimmed a little, but I understood the need for equality.

So, here is my interesting twist on the Marshmallow Experiment . They have understood and taken on board that they are taking turns and – crucially for me – they are neither squabbling about that (don’t worry, we are far from perfect: they find other things over which to squabble!) nor are they demanding more than one chocolate calendar in the house. Beyond this, they’ve worked out that they can control that chocolate and influence the next one or two days. Generosity will pay off – a smaller piece on one’s own day will guarantee, with that sense of justice and fairness which is so innate and so strong within the hearts and minds of little people, a taste the next day.

Thus it is that each of the children waits for his or her day and chooses what he or she wants to do with the chocolate – they’ve all realised that it’s in their control. Even S. goes up to it, touches it fondly and asks ‘Me?’. Okay, sometimes it’s rather more of a statement, a ‘ME’, but two little people are quick to correct her if she’s a day early. We may forget whose day it is on the other calendars, but we never forget whose day it is for the chocolate pocket. But on her days, S. has embraced the generosity shown her by her siblings and readily shares her chocolate.

So now I kick back and wait for the more profound element of the experiment. I’ll let you know in about 25 years time, when the birds may have flown the nest, what effect this annual ritual may be having on the longer term character development of my little group of three.









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Amy’s Handmade Christmas*


We have been here for six months, almost to the day. We came, with every inch of our car carrying something of our life in the UK, and every gram of my 140 kilograms of luggage laden with some form of clothing to see a family of five through a year of seasons. There wasn’t much room for frills and frivolities. Back in April, I packed for Christmas and brought the children’s three stockings and our two advent calendars – one a material pocketed calendar, handmade with love by Nonna, filled with excitement annually by mamma; the other a nativity scene to which we daily add a character or animal. I am determined not to gather here in Italy more boxes of Christmas decorations: there are three at home in our loft, waiting to be enjoyed again. This year, we will decorate our house ourselves.

My only concessions to a commercial Christmas are:

  • one string of 140 fairy lights which cost Euros 8 from a cheap pound shop equivalent (I am cautiously hoping they will work for one Christmas at least… perhaps I would have been wise to think a little more sustainably);
  • a large pack of candles and tealights;
  • two cans of metallic spray paint (when we finally found spray paint, the children chose one colour each for their Christmas decorations);
  • a few packs of tissue paper.

Everything else has to be sourced from inside or outside the house.

I am already struck first by how pleasant it is to aspire to a house which is decorated for Christmas just in some way, rather than a house which is decorated for Christmas in the way in which the latest trends demand of me. I happily hold my hand up and admit that I love browsing at Christmas time and collecting new decorations. Were I near a John Lewis store, I have no doubt that I would have picked up a little bauble or two to grace my tree this year and would be coveting a great deal more. It is far easier to resist the urge to purchase if temptation is hundreds of miles away in a different country. Interestingly, though, it means that for once I am actually quite happy for the house to start to look genuinely home-decorated. By home decorated, I mean genuinely decorated by the children. Where I might normally find a corner of the house for the children’s homespun delights leaving more prominent areas for apparently perfect purchases, this year I feel like I am embracing homespun Christmas properly.

This brings me to my second realization: the children are enjoying this low key process and casual approach to festivities. I have barely breathed the words ‘making decorations’ and they are off – finding, making, being creative and being resourceful. P. rummaged through my cupboards and pulled out all the old jam jars to clean them up for tealight holders: I had vaguely mentioned doing this but was a bit bored by the thought of peeling labels off before I’d even started so was pleasantly surprised and then delighted when P. washed them and managed to clean most of the labels off without much help. H. meanwhile, has found our stack of card and has been busy cutting out Christmas tree outlines to hang from the bannisters. Together we made our advent ‘ring’, which is not a ring but an oblong, because that happened to be the box I had of approximately the right size. Okay, so we miss the ‘everlasting circle’ point, but we are able to light the candles through the four Sundays of Advent.

The stars of our show, however, are our Christmas stars, which H. and P. learned to make from one of the very creative helpers at school. While P. and I were busy spray painting pine cones, rosehips and leaves outside, H. was inside folding, cutting and stapling to produce these:


IMG_0343 IMG_0342

I was pretty impressed. We now have three glorious rainbow stars and several metallic red stars suspended above us. Meanwhile, those treasures from nature note used in our Advent Not-Ring glint with silver and red spray paint, ready to hang on our ‘tree’ which this year will be an olive branch pruned during the recent harvest.

*Kirsty Allsop, eat your heart out…

Time for Bread

Today, I made bread. Correction: Today, I Made Bread. As in, Proper Bread. Bread that takes time. The sort of time for the little things that are actually quite big things, which are so often pushed to the side in our all too hectic, pressure-crazy, fast-fast, quick-quick, SMART-criteria lives.

The first bake – helping the Master Baker

Sourdough bread is the ubiquitous hot love of the SMART-crazy commuters inhabiting many a chichi up-and-come-d hot spot in London. To eat sourdough is to care about what you are putting into your bodies and to have enough money to be able to pay the smart London premium demanded for it. Sourdough is being appropriated, in much the same way as have been blueberries, pomegranates, avocados and countless other ‘superfoods’, as a trendy requirement of the money rich and time poor; the sourdough irony is that flying by the local deli to grab a loaf of sourdough to fuel a body fatigued by its frenetic lifestyle slightly misses its point.

My solo bake

My solo bake

Setting out on my own over the last week, keeping an eye on my starter and preparing for Dough Making D-Day, I realised that making sourdough wasn’t nearly as tricky as I might have been led to believe. Using the basics from my master class, (under the tuition of a young couple, bakers ‘extraordinaire’, who are ‘WWoof’-ing their way round Italy and France and whom I invited to stay at casa mia for a few days,) over the past seven days, I have thrown a little flour and water at my starter, chucked the odd spoonful away when I felt it was smelling a bit too sour, stirred it and checked on its bubbles. Today, transforming my boozy-smelling starter into a loaf of bread, I was a little less precise and a little more haphazard with flour types and folding techniques than might have been my ‘tutor’. Guided by the basic instructions, I ‘watched the dough, not the clock’, followed my instincts and the good news is that my bread was delicious. It tasted of bread. It was chewy, flavoursome and it had texture. Proper Bread. Real Bread. Bread worth making and bread worth eating.

So here’s the thing. At the risk of being a bit English teacher-y about it all, it’s something of a metaphor, isn’t it? Bread and life and all that. I was around for my bread today: I checked up on it, added salt, folded it, let it rest, folded it again… folded it again… and left it on the worksurface (the posh phrase for this is giving it ‘the bench rest’), put it in the rising basket so it could do its thing for a bit, then baked it.

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To make sourdough is not to commit oneself to weeks of drudgery keeping the precious starter alive and then to a day of intensive, hands-on kneading time. It’s to commit oneself to being around, to being present. To having time for the things in life that matter and working other things around it. Bread matters because to feed oneself decent food matters – mens sana in corpore sano. And the things in life that matter need time. Perhaps, if the bread-life metaphor is precise, I should rephrase that: life needs time. It’s a bit of a paradox, that, but I think it’s the crux of the matter. Life is time but paradoxically it needs time and only we can give it to ourselves. Life isn’t a dress rehearsal. This is it: here and now. It’s my life and it’s my little people’s lives: they need the kind of time that means being present, being around. Being here. The little people who matter don’t need the helicopter parenting of guilt-ridden adults trying to micro-manage their children’s lives – vicariously or otherwise – in the way they would work their way through a dreaded spreadsheet of checks and balances. They don’t need the constant feeding and kneading of test-driven schooling deified increasingly in the UK and the USA. They need a bit of attention and plenty of space in between – they might be taking the bench rest, they might be playing – to work it out for themselves. They need someone around to love them, to notice if something isn’t quite right, (if there are no bubbles in your sourdough starter, you definitely won’t get a loaf of bread out of it), and to care about the end product. Making sourdough is about being around, about being present. For me and for them.

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A few of my favourite things… about the senza zaino school


While I do love ‘brown paper parcels tied up with string’, for now, I am content to enjoy these little touches of the senza zaino school.

The tascapane: literally ‘pocket-bread’ – the sort of bag that would have been used in days-gone-by to take a parcel of bread and cheese to lunch in the fields; (you can see why this appeals to my Old School Romanticism); they use this instead of a backpack, or ‘zaino’. H. has a lovely hand made, blue cloth bag, the shoulder strap of which is adjusted by decorative buttons on the side. It’s light-weight, attractive and practical. P. has draw string bag for his water bottle and snack, with a plastic pocket on the front to keep safe letters going home.

Scarpe: Specifically, pantofole (slippers or indoor shoes) and scarpe – outdoor shoes. No explanation needed. Needless to say, I think this is great. I have always admired the practices of other cultures, such as Arab and Eastern European, of automatically removing outdoor shoes on stepping inside. It’s just common sense not to want any number of disgusting things we step on outside, trodden inside.

I like the named scatola (plastic box) on which P. places his shoes and the little, named cubby hole for H.’s shoes. I like the fact that the shelves and boxes are fixed at a child’s height and are easy for small hands to operate. The onus is on them to keep themselves organized and there’s a proper space for everything: for shoes, for coats, for snacks.

It’s not only the boxes and cubby holes, but also the naming thereof: the children have a little wooden tag with a photo of them on one side and ‘oggi non ce sono’ followed by their name on the other: ‘today so-and-so isn’t here’. When they come to school, they turn the tag over to the photograph to show that they are there. It’s functional, personal and also encourages them to take responsibility for themselves. P.’s shoes go on the box and other things go inside – in P.’s case, usually all the warm items of clothing I’ve insisted he wears on these chilly mornings, which he insists on taking off as soon as he can. P. is extremely warm blooded. It is only since we have hit frost in the mornings in the last week that he has reluctantly succumbed to wearing socks and boots instead of bare feet and Crocs.

Asciugamano! Hand towels! Parents are asked to supply a named hand towel with a loop so that it can hang on a peg in the toilets. So easy, so civilized. The towel comes home at the end of the week for washing.

Cuscino: The children of the Scuola Materna l bring a cushion in for agora time, the circle time which starts each day. Cushions and soft mattings are already at school for the Primaria children. And I am reliably informed by H. that scarpe and pantafole are removed before coming into agora.

Colazione. The children are encouraged to bring a snack for colazione (breakfast or mid-morning break) and the Scuola Materna recommends a different snack type on each day of the week, which both encourages a healthier attitude to snacks and less jealousy over who has what, thus we rotate through yoghurt, frutta, salato, dolce and then to libero – free choice. Colazione is put into a designated space at the start of the day. I’m not sure how committed all children are to bringing the correct snack, but the intention is there and it appeals to me. It also encourages me not simply to chuck the same thing in their bags every day.

the moon

The moon at sunset.


Grembiule: this is the cover up the children wear over their own clothes. The latest parents’ meeting noted to ‘mettere sempre il grembiule’. I have to say that this isn’t always the case, though I do try to remind H. to put hers on and this is something to work on – again, it makes sense – own clothes might be fine, (you can see I’m not entirely convinced by this), but school uniforms are practical and help to iron out those differences between children which are too often the cause of classroom conflict, so the grembiule is neat and practical.




So, those are just a few of my favourite things. Homework: turn it into a song good enough for Maria to sing. A song, actually, might well have featured here, H. has been singing non-stop ‘La scuola che c’e’ – a song written by a child at another senza zaino school, celebrating all things senza zaino and what it means to a child to be at a school ‘fatto per me‘ – made for me.

snow 1

First snowfall

H. is part way through writing me a list – in beautiful cursive script – of the little tasks the children are charged with on a daily basis. In the mean time, I leave you with news that Winter has arrived, stealthily and overnight, shocking us into thick winter coats, scarves and hats and an excitement in the children that could scarcely be contained when we saw the first scattering of snow on the mountain top on Sunday and enjoyed the first frost in the olive groves this morning.


Senza Zaino

The impetus for our capricious move here was the Senza Zaino school movement in the area. Senza Zaino is probably best described as a way of schooling not dissimilar to the Reggio Emilia and Montessori teaching methodologies. The name ‘senza zaino’ is primarily symbolic of three core values nurtured in the schools: responsibility, community and hospitality. The name itself means ‘without backpack’: work is completed in school and children are no more sent home with oodles of homework than they are subjected to tests at an absurdly early age. As a vociferous critic of the way in which Primary education in the UK is going, I was – and am – keen for my children to experience a different way of learning.

To this end, I’ve been trying to understand better how Senza Zaino works, usually by listening with almost two ears in a meeting while simultaneously distracting la Principessa with drawings, grissini and finally biscotti and checking up on H. and P. who are enjoying new found freedom running outside in the very small village in whose community the school nestles.

Some of the finer details may well have passed me by, but to date, the Senza Zaino system is practically appealing, educationally interesting and inclusive and feels supportive emotionally.

Above all – aside from the small practical differences which I love (more later) – I have been struck by what it feels like to be part of a school which truly embraces its community. November is ‘banca del tempo’ (time bank) month, when we, as parents, are asked to propose how we will support the school’s curriculum. These progetti are over and above the extra curricular ‘progetti’ already planned for the year.

The first meeting to discuss the progetti was itself was revelatory: parents sat in a circle with the two teachers and there was a genuine sense of working together, of the teachers wanting parental input and support, of being open to and valuing what parents could offer, practically and educationally. There was no sense of ‘them’ and ‘us’ or of parental input being limited to the specific area of fundraising.

view12.11The sense of collaboration from a community which extends beyond parents is already strong: the Vedic Art progetto run by a local artist is already in place once a week. After Christmas, a local mother will hold a series of Yoga Fit sessions and an ex-pat who has lived in the region for years will also be holding a series of Music Therapy sessions. At the meeting, a permaculture specialist from a town some 40 minutes away led the discussion around creating a vegetable garden or ‘orto’ using traditional methods whenever possible, thus it was suggested that we commission a local carpenter to make child-sized wooden spades, rakes and wheelbarrow; everyone discussed how children would be involved at every stage, from preparing the area, digging the ground over, planting and tending crops through to harvesting, cooking and eating the produce of our labours. The parent committee clearly fundraises to support such events, in much the same way as we are used to in the UK, but the advantage of being part of such a small school is that all parents could discuss openly the nature of the projects to be supported. The orto seems set to be a genuine community collaboration and the teachers welcome any help – from a few hours digging the ground over at the start to a regular commitment from parents once the garden is up and running.

Our last letter home was full of suggestions for the ‘banca del tempo’ – for language lessons or activities from other cultures, small carpentry projects, photography or drawing groups; there was also an appeal to help on ‘rainy days’ when the children cannot go out to play. The message is clear: parents have skills and ideas which can surely only be of benefit to the school; it feels a far cry from the UK, whereby parental interaction in school feels strictly limited to set times and occasions.

The pressure is on then, to think of something to offer – not least from H. and P. who are keen to know when I will be coming in and what I will be doing. H. is full of ambitious sewing projects, but I’ve seen the handiwork of one mamma and won’t be competing on that front! Since the first meeting, one mamma has already spent the day in school cooking from scratch small doughnuts with the pupils, who wrote and illustrated the step-by-step method for making them in their books, thus educationally, one activity covers many bases: maths and science, writing and literacy and art. Another mamma will soon be running four afternoons pre-Christmas to make decorations and one parent is considering a polaroid photography project.

autumnAmong other highlights in the calendar, we have been told about a day trip to Siena for a history trip focusing on the famous palio della contrada; there is the ‘degustazione’ progetta, an exploration of the four seasons and five senses through a visit to the local ‘frantoio’ (olive press) where the children will see the journey from olive to oil and taste the finest extra virgin olive oil on fresh bread; finally winter can’t come quickly enough for our children to participate in the ‘settimana bianca’ – the white week when they will go daily to the mountain for ski or snowboard lessons. I’m still enjoying the glorious autumn sunshine of this post’s photos, but even I feel excited about wrapping up warmly for snowy mountain days… just so long as I’ve figured out snow chains, tyres and how those two go together with cold fingers and three children, all will be well.


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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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