A New Journey

14 March 2017

It was the fronted adverbials that did it. For every jittery moment I had in considering the next leap we were to decide to take as a family, fronted adverbials, expanded noun phrases and spelling lists involving such vital everyday words as ‘quoits’ continually resurfaced in my mind. In the dark hours of the night these thoughts confused themselves with Gradgrind’s exacting definition of a horse, (‘Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive….’*), and I would wake with resolve. Education has to be about more than this, right?

I was on the edge of tears when I handed the letter in and spoke to the children’s teachers. I actually like schools. Correction, I like the potential that learning in and being part of a school community has to offer. I like shared values, collaborative learning, the energy and inspiration of the most passionate teachers. I like access to resources, shared spaces, singing together, performing, assemblies. I like my children finding role models in other adults. I like the idea that one moment, one teacher, one idea can be a turning point in a child’s life. I like celebrating beautiful work through displays, I like choosing themes and exploring them through myriad connections. I like proud parent moments. And possibly more than that, I used to like proud teacher moments. I liked mentoring children, discovering new ways of helping things to click. I loved those light bulb moments. I loved it when I’d managed it and they’d been inspired.

In short, I am not anti-school.

But I am thoroughly disillusioned with the way in which the system is moving. Happiness classes being trialled for 8 year olds, stress and children’s mental health disorders costing the NHS £105 billion a year, children needing to be ‘school ready’, and the red thread linking all the reports, articles, comments… the red thread is the constant need to test, to measure through testing, to drive results upwards and forwards, at the cost of – of learning being defined by a symbolic badge, demonstrating little more than the ability of a small being to regurgitate specific information at a fixed moment in time in response to a specific question. Education has been reduced to the acquisition of a grade, of passing a test, of getting a certificate.

I want children to learn more than how to guess accurately an answer that is in my – or the examiner’s – head. And I feel the imperative for this ever more acutely when I see the rate at which the world around us is changing. As technology disrupts every area of our lives, the primacy of a knowledge-based education has to be challenged. Ironically, even as technology such as a translation ear piece reaches accuracy which will radicalise communication, mainstream education takes a step backwards, insisting on rote learning of facts, on drilling and testing. It’s the old fashioned model of children as empty vessels waiting to be filled with predetermined information, rather than the consideration of children as naturally curious, naturally ready and hard wired to learn, to question, to inquire.

I recently read a perfect analogy for the futility of constant testing: weighing yourself daily doesn’t make you lose weight. Precisely: weight loss can be sought more reliably by moving more and eating less. And testing will not lead to better results any more than weighing will lead to weight loss. Better ‘results’, or more accurately, better outcomes, or children who are better learners, more eager to learn, more able to ask pertinent questions, more inquiring of mind will be and are the natural results of environments which give children opportunities to do what they do naturally and very effectively, namely, to learn.

A few weeks ago, H. came home and told me that ‘you can’t “crash quietly into a tree.” Excuse me? H. insisted that no, you cannot, under any circumstance write the descriptive phrase, ‘“I crashed quietly into a tree”, because, Mummy, a crash is noisy, so you can’t do it quietly.’ Why not, I asked her? If you wrote that for me, I would be delighted – perhaps you would be trying to express the terrifying internal silence as your life flashes before your eyes just before the crash. No. Her teacher had said you can’t write it. So you can’t.

I don’t have issues with the teacher, for whom I actually have a great deal of respect. I take issue with the fact that creative writing has become prescriptive, and at such a young age. It was bad enough at GCSE when we taught children to write for a specific reason (writing is grouped into a purpose, fitting neatly into a pithy triplet – to argue, persuade, advise or to inform, explain, describe; any child who veered off into imaginative territory which didn’t fit the marking criteria would miss the grade, however engaging, stimulating and original the work), but at least at GCSE there is the hope that you can tell the more creative students just to play the game this once and then get back to their interesting writing. H.’s comment was an insight as to why September generally began with Year 7 English classrooms filled with the same exciting simile: “I ran as fast as a cheetah.” To this is creativity in writing reduced.

So I arrive at a point in which I am by turn petrified, ecstatic, excited. I feel liberated and freed. We have stepped out. Out of an institution and into a story which we will co-create. I am under no illusions: there will be whole chapters in which I will be exhausted, distressed and questioning why I haven’t just sent them all to school to give myself a break. There will be whole chapters in which I will struggle to be teacher and mummy and still find moments to be Amy.

I hope I will remind myself in these moments of the following:

  • Before the children went to school, they actually learned a great deal. All of it without any direct instruction. They learned by imitation and experimentation, by trial and error. They learned to sit, then crawl and onwards to walk and run. They learned to speak and once they could, a whole new world of questioning was theirs. They learned lots of right and when they might have transgressed the boundaries to wrong. They learned masses about their own small world and a great deal about this massive world around them. They noticed and compared, commented and thought. They decided what and how they wanted to play.
  • I have questioned from day one whether teachers at the school really know my children or are really able to help them flourish and develop their talents. Aged four to five, H. used to create poetry books in her own time, carefully stapling pages together, writing short poems and illustrating them. This stopped with the onset of Year 1. I have wondered about a system which hasn’t the time or inclination to nurture the interests of the children within it. I’ve wondered why my children are being told to write in a prescribed way when they are in the full throes of creativity.
  • I have always been surprised by the teachers telling me what my children are capable of, as if I don’t know and then telling me what they think she/he can’t do, simply because they haven’t been privy to the insight I have.
  • Slavishly following catatonically boring reading schemes has done nothing to inspire either of my oldest two children to read. In my humble opinion, it has achieved nothing but the opposite, reducing  the fascination and wonder of words to a mind numbing linear process of decoding.
  • Although I am aware that my children would, more than likely, have left school largely unscathed and with fond memories, they would also have left thinking that learning is only learning if it is validated by a test and a mark. They would have left thinking that learning is work, to be got out of the way before the real stuff – play – can happen. The distinction between work and play was already apparent. Play was happening at home and work happening at school. Play was become what ‘I choose to do’ and work is what someone ‘makes me do’.

This is not the route I saw myself taking, but I hadn’t accounted for quite how comprehensively the national curriculum and the obsession with testing can pervade an education system. It’s another unknown and another potential risk. Today, though, the sun was actually shining brightly – quite literally. The sky was cobalt blue. It felt auspicious.

*Charles Dickens Hard Times

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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Amy’s Handmade Christmas*

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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:

 

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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


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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.

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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.

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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!

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.

 

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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…

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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.

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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.

Observations

I feel for H. and P. This was brought home to me this week when we met a delightful English family at the pool. Furtive whispers were exchanged between my two: ‘I think they’re speaking English! Yes, it is English! I heard it! Do you think they know we are English?’ Their excited words distilled for me how isolating, in some ways, our first few months in Italy have been for us and for the children in particular. Starved of conversation in their own language with people other than family, both children delighted when the lovely Northern teenagers responded to their obvious need – H. and P. were bursting with pent up conversational energy – and played with them.

This strange semi-isolation will change, of course, when we start school in September, but in the mean time, our transition to this rural spot and the nature of the way in which we have started our adventure over the summer months, during which it’s much harder to meet people and make friends, brings other observations.

In their ‘isolation’ – for want of a better word – H. and . have formed a veritable little double act; but in their reliance on each other as playmates, for distraction and for emotional support, they are also becoming increasingly resourceful and self sufficient.

When we came home today, P. reminded me that the figs needed picking, in part because the tree is virtually heaving under their weight and in part because it might rain tomorrow and they have realized that the torrential downpours we have had, while a relief from the intense heat of the last six weeks, have not benefited greatly our precious crop.

With bags to unpack, dinner to throw together hastily and an overtired Principessa grabbing a short doze, fig picking was low down on my priority list. H. and P. sorted it out for themselves, though: they found the right (unbreakable) bowl from the cupboard, H. climbed the tree while P. stood below to catch the figs; both of them used various bits of bamboo to lever the less accessible fruit and came through to the kitchen, proudly bearing their load.

I was ready to receive a bowl of under-ripe fruit, picked too early, but ate humble pie when they came in. It’s a reminder – one that I’ve had quite often here – that children are capable of so much more than we sometimes allow them to be; ‘allow’ them both literally, in the sense of permitting them or giving them the opportunity to do something; or more figuratively, in the sense of how we might unintentionally limit our expectations of them.

H. has taken to dressing la Principessa in the morning – choosing the right clothes, taking care to check she is balanced properly, talking her through the process so that she knows what is going on. When we go to the cold plunge pools, P. is keen to explore, scrambling over rocks well into the distance on his own: he feels safe because he knows we are not far off and is aware of boundaries and limitations; he points out stones that might be slippery, tree branches that might be in the way and water that might be deeper. They both already have a great sense of geographical surroundings, coming home from Siena at the weekend on a road we have only been on twice before, P. remarked that ‘we’re going to come out near V.’s house’. Even la Principessa, at 17 months, left to her own devices simply because I cannot give her the attention I would have given to a first child and because of the nature of our surroundings and life here, often surprises me: picking windfall plums from under our tree, she passes them to me after a few bites to remove the stones; getting ready to go out for the day, she goes to the hat box, finds everyone’s sun hats and distributes the correct hat to the correct person; at breakfast time she makes a fair attempt to open the children’s drawer and find their bowls and cups to help lay the table.

I’m reminded of how much children used to do ‘in the old days’, before we moved on and realized – quite rightly – that children have the right to be seen and heard. As we have progressed, our lives have become full of potential in enlightening, energizing and mind-broadening ways, but that same potential is double edged: while travel, technology and the trappings of modernity offer the possibility of adventure, fun and discovery, they also offer more sinister ‘maybes’ and ‘what ifs’. And this is arguably felt most keenly as a parent for whom a carnal protective instinct is created with the child.

While books, films and the memories of grandparents might remind us of the supposedly halcyon days of unfettered freedom enjoyed pre-internet, fast cars and fast paced lives, we often listen to and enjoy these stories knowing they are somewhat rose tinted: with the smooth, there is always a rough. Our 21st century minds will almost invariably choose our own 21st century smooth and bear the consequences of its rough edges.

Making pizzas in a wood-fired pizza oven.

But I can’t help feeling that our rough potentials sometimes tip the balance for us as parents. Our over protective culture, knowledgeable of danger and consequently often erring on danger averse, coupled with modern day fears over children’s general physical safety has limited their freedoms not only outside the home, but also inside so that sometimes we unknowingly forget to allow children to rise to taking responsibility for themselves, even in the smallest of ways.

As parents, we have so much pressure on us to ‘do it right’ to ‘achieve’ in parenting in the same way as we might achieve at work but it feels to me increasingly that we are missing the point.

Children want our time, they want us around them, but they also need to be given space and opportunities to explore at their own pace. I feel fortunate that here I’m able to allow this more easily than I might have been back in the UK. In a relatively safe environment, it has been natural to allow the children more freedom.

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

Living off the main road, on gravel tracks travelled by perhaps a handful or so of cars and tractors a day, I can relatively comfortably allow the children to run to boundaries that we have set, ahead of me and out of sight, or down to the lane to gather blackberries or find figs. I am learning to counsel myself that they are fearful enough of vehicles that they will stand aside if they hear one nearing; that they are sensible enough not to wander further than the limit I have set and that it isn’t imperative that they are within sight at all times.   Simultaneously, being here on my own with them for days at a time, I have had no choice but for all three children to have had more freedom than previously: I simply cannot do everything for all three of them all the time, every day. On the bad days, I try to do precisely that: I burn out and we all end up shouting. On the good days, I try to turn my exhaustion round, giving them tasks and responsibility. When I manage this, I am unfailingly rewarded not simply by the delight I feel when they respond happily, willingly and helpfully but by the energy this gives them to show me what they can do: unasked, unprompted and unaided.

Further Post Office Peculiarities 

Last week, we had an update on the old Post Office scenario. Going in as usual to collect my post, I was greeted by a new figure – Signore Post Office, it would seem. Signore Post Office insisted he knew nothing of the arrangement made with Signora Post Office to hold my post in a box and wanted me to outline the entire post box requirement saga afresh.

On completion thereof, he shuffled several papers together and announced two options available to me: I could have post delivered to a local friend in Castel del Piano (Friend? Locally? One to whom I can have post delivered? We are far from those dizzy heights); or, I could choose the ‘aspetta’ option, and pay the Post Office to hold my post there for collection for any length of time I wished.

I failed entirely to understand how this second option was in any way different from the informal arrangement Signora Post Office had made with me, other than the requirement to pay for it. In any case, what I really want is a post box so I can access it when I want, rather than being beholden to opening hours and the lamentable queues in the post office.

Unfortunately, much to my frustration, I was unable to communicate this to Signore Post Office in my 400 words of Italian learned with Elisabeth Smith, (I’m onto pronouns – ‘si, lo prendo’ or ‘non lo prendo’ rather than ‘I’ll take it on the conditions outlined to me by Signora a few weeks ago, rather than this new option with which you have decided to present me’), so I left with papers full of very tiny print of no doubt incredibly bureaucratic Italian tucked under my arm, together with a hot, bothered and now screaming Principessa. And one has wondered why la Principessa always has a tantrum when we go into the Post Office?

I brought the papers home and promptly forgot all about them. Since then, I have been back to the Post Office on several occasions to retrieve post from my cardboard box from la Signora. There has been no mention of papers, paying or other services, so I will continue in my own way, feigning misunderstanding if Signore Post Office makes a future appearance. Sometimes, ‘non parlo multo Italiano’ can be quite helpful, I feel.

On a happier note, as we left the Post Office, for some reason we started chatting to a lovely lady who spoke French. On easier linguistic territory here, we chatted and it transpired that this Alessandra is in fact not only a teacher, but a teacher in Scuola Materna, and not just any Scuola Materna, but the very one which P. will start in September. P. beamed with pleasure when he found this out and I am greatly relieved that P. has a face and a name to associate with school. P., it is fair to say, is finding the transition to la vita bella more difficult than his sisters. Of course, la Principessa just beams with blonde beauty as every Italian nonna in town passes her with cries of ‘la bambina bellisima, complimenti’ and H. happily declares that ‘for the first month we won’t understand anything in school, but then – we’ll just be talking Italian and coming home and teaching you, Mummy!’. P., conversely, is most anxious about starting, worrying about not understanding what people say to him and wondering how he will know what to do. It is one month until we start school and I myself am becoming nervous about the next step in our Italian Adventure.