The Paradox of Choice

‘Mummy, I feel like I am on that wheel at the park in Grosseto. If I run up one side, it’s England and if I run up the other side, it’s Italy. I don’t know which way to go.’

P.’s articulation of this equivocal state captured perfectly our own feelings. November marks the start of the final weeks of packing up before we move back to England.

P. is torn, as we all are, by the paradox of choice that brought us here initially. We created it for ourselves in choosing to step out of who we were and push on the boundaries that we create for ourselves in life. On one side stands England and for H. and P., returning will doubtless bring some relief as they pull on the garbs of familiarity in their daily life: the walk to school, friendships which will be negotiated in mother tongue, the comfort of being close to family, of the consistency of having Tom around regularly, of not having to say goodbye to him on his London weeks.

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Dam building and wild water in Italy

On the other side stands Italy, the spirit of adventure which brought us here and which has defined our time on the Amiata. An experience in Italy that has pushed our boundaries, as individuals and as a family. Italy that has, paradoxically within its restrictive and potentially infuriating bureaucracy, afforded us extraordinary freedom in countless ways. The paradoxical confusion of P.’s feelings are played out for all of us in our emotions and in our existence here.

Teetering on the poignant cusp between Italy and England I feel this paradox acutely in what this year has offered the children. In leaving England, we left a school system that I felt strangled the very children it was supposed to teach. Despite the best intentions of many teachers who can see the pitfalls of the curriculum, the driving force of English schooling strait-jackets children into rote learning and tests, conforming them out of creativity. We plucked them out of that, held hands and leapt into the dark, in truth knowing very little about what it would be like here. Not knowing and, initially, not understanding, was, on reflection, extraordinarily liberating not only for me, as an educational professional and as a mother, but also for the children. School in our first year in Italy became about the language, and understanding what was going on, rather than about tests, testing, keeping up or racing ahead, in whatever way those featured within the tiny school the children attended. To be within an education system only temporarily affords a very different and potentially liberating perspective.

The unfolding of the school year ran in parallel with our increasing understanding of Italian. With the flowering of language came the understanding that this is an education system that is utterly broken, albeit in very different ways from that in the UK. Information with which I suppose I could have armed myself easily before we came, had I chosen to research. There must have been an instinctive self-correction there: too much knowledge can be a dangerous thing, and too much knowledge would almost certainly have compromised our decision to move here. So we left one education system that, in focusing solely on measuring, testing and results, is losing its way and risks disenfranchising from learning a vast swathe of the next generation, to a system that is beyond ripe for reform both administratively and inside the classroom.

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Outdoor learning at Poggio d’Oro

As with almost all things Italian, however, for every broken system, incomprehensible law, unfathomable decision, there is another way, a ‘giro’ or a ‘soluzione Italiana’ if it can be found. The circumvention to those regulations which are less palatable, coupled with an innovation which is actually key to the Italian mindset, are two qualities which meant it was possible for my Italian friend and I to set up our alternative school here in Italy. Thus it is, that, despite the trials of last school year, H. and P. are now enjoying three months in a school that is overwhelmingly joyful. We came from a schooling system that struggled to maintain creativity despite the system, through a state run school here that nominally aspired to teach differently, but was strangled regularly by the bureaucracy for which Italy is renowned, to reach this brief, beautiful, halcyon period. Three months of school that feels wholesome, alive and joyous. Poggio d’Oro (literally, ‘knoll of gold’) does feel golden. Perhaps particularly golden in the poignancy of this moment, as we stand once more on the cusp of change. This golden hillock is giving children their childhood. Freeing them to learn in ways which excite, energise and inspire them.

As I walk up to school for our regular afternoon meeting, I hear the children’s games. One day they have found treasure, beautiful coloured stones and they are deciding as a close knit team of children, where to keep their precious booty. Another day they come running over to tell us that they have found out where the chickens have been laying their eggs, they’ve collected eight and put them inside to be shared out. One afternoon they are tasting the juice they pressed from grapes when they learned about wine making with a local producer – excitedly they tell me it has started to ferment naturally – they are making wine!

On other occasions a friend brings them back from school. They tumble in the door, generally grubby from a day which at some point has been spent outside gathering autumn’s bounty or starting to build their wooden base house or down in the cantina making a town from clay ready to light up at Christmas. Their faces are shiny with excitement – they have made me crotcheted necklaces, they need to buy screws and nails so that they can carry on constructing their base, they made soap out of olive oil and pressed flower leaves in. They are learning songs for Christmas and they had a go at a new martial art. Tomorrow is their beloved Feda who teaches them music. Only two more days til woodwork on Friday.

Capture these moments. Imprint them. Hold them close and fast. The clock ticks and I want to make this a reality in England too. The paradox of choice.

Transitions

As those of you familiar with some of the best of Italy’s wines might expect, the drive from our house to Montalcino is populated by an exceptional number of vineyards. As we head down the hill, the patchwork of olive trees and vines of our panoramic view is gradually replaced by increasing numbers of perfectly pruned, immaculately kept vineyards, the precision rows of which appear to stand sentry, proud custodians of the finest Brunello di Montalcino. The Brunello di Montalcino, makers of which smile benignly down on the Val d’Orcia inferiore: the Sangiovese grape grown where we live will apparently never be capable of producing such a taste.

 

I am coming to love this drive with its infantry of vines, a guard which seems laced in a fragile irony, its grapes at the mercy of the elements. As a friend of mine said to me yesterday, he is playing a waiting game heavy with nerves. It’s a protracted game, against a powerful and unpredictable opponent. The crop looks excitingly good, but until the grapes are ready, they cannot be harvested. And until they are harvested, anything is possible.

 

Autumn skies on the evening drive from the school home

Autumn skies on the evening drive from the school home

Daily the drive is taking us longer, as more and more vineyards decide the time is most propitious and cars succumb to tractors and camions preparing for, or coming from vendemmia*. We slow down to a mild 20 miles per hour (mind you, we are still overtaken by those Italians insistent on taking the racing line and overtaking simultaneously, those who will not be slowed down by anyone’s vendemmia), and daily take stock of the status quo. At the week’s start, red crates appeared at intervals along the rows, anticipating the cutting of the grappa, hanging tantalizingly above. Today, driving home, many vineyards looked curiously barren and I realised how accustomed we have become over the last few months to turning our eyes subconsciously to bunch upon the bunch of purple grapes. The great cycle of life turns again; the end and the beginning and I feel supremely fortunate. This is what harvest means, this is what autumn signifies. Somehow my usual mixed September emotions, as I reluctantly let go of sultry summer days and yet revel in the burning beauty of autumnal richness, make more sense. The end and the beginning. The bringing together of a year’s labour, the excitement of the fruits yielded as the revolution is completed, only to start again.

P. conscientiously preparing to start school - his new school, my school, an exciting transition for all of us

P. conscientiously preparing to start school – his new school, my school, an exciting transition for all of us

It resonates particularly now as I consider how far we have come since September 2015. It resonates as I stand in the kitchen at dinner time and prepare dinner, while the children sit together, building coronets from tiny bricks, chattering away in their mother tongue, intermingled with Italian phrases aplenty. Last night, disturbed in my sleep as I often am with three children, I couldn’t help but smile – P., who so often talks in his sleep, was muttering in Italian, ‘non, lo facciamo cosi’!’. It resonates as I hear H. in the bedroom giving S. her own private tutorial, the result of which I experience shortly after, ‘Mamma?’, ‘Yes, S.’, I reply, ‘non, Mamma, say, “si”’, she insists. S. sat with me at lunchtime yesterday and picked up the lemon, ‘Dat, “limone”‘ she pointed out to me, in precision perfect accent.

 

Looking from the top door of the tiny house over the land

Looking from the top door of the tiny house over the land

It resonates as I pick up the phone to negotiate a deal on taking our own grapes to be pressed and take stock that I couldn’t have done that a year ago – neither in terms of owning the grapes, nor in terms of conducting the negotiation. This but one conversation in the many negotiations concerning our tiny casa rustica, standing on our hectare of olive trees and vineyards; conversations convoluted in Italian bureaucracy  which generally leave me exhausted less by translation and more by the absurd idiosyncrasies of those translations.

 

 

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Changes to our tiny casa rustica – gone are the rats and cobwebs…

 

It resonates personally as I stop for a caffe’ with our Italian neighbours and share a joke in Italian or as I feel the glorious delight of culture and communication when the owner of a local agriturismo comes over to chat to us at the village’s ‘Festa della Bruschetta dell’Olio Nuovo‘.

Olio Nuovo, as green as it gets

Olio Nuovo, as green as it gets

Later, all five of us – la principessa included, eagerly taste the freshest green olive oil and all five of us give our opinions, coughing slightly on its coveted bitterness.

A ‘mastery’, for want of a better word, of some sort of the language is fundamental to my autumn harvest, all the richer because I know this is but the beginning: the bounty of language is endless. But harvest this year feels rich beyond language and beyond words. It cuts to my heart with that beautiful pain reserved for the most precious of bonds when I look at the children and remember where we were a year ago. I think about the ‘salto nel buio’ we took in coming here. A leap into the dark which was, on reflection, fairly brazen in its naivety and from which we are now reaping our harvests. As with all harvests – particularly of farmers with a variety of crops – there will be fruit which we would rather not keep. It is, naturally, far from perfect but it is plentiful and, right now, as the winegrowers of Montalcino revel in their purple grapes, I too am taking a moment, to pause, to reflect and to appreciate. To feel fortunate and to thank – whoever and whatever we believe in – the freedom we had to choose and the choice we made. I want to bottle the richness of this harvest, I want to lay it down with the best ‘riserva’, to be brought out in that intangible future, when memories will give succour to tired minds.

*vendemmia – the grape harvest

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Processes or progress?

Every time I think I have reached an understanding of quite how frustratingly convoluted this country is, I am confronted with yet more examples of the sublime and the ridiculous.

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You think you dread the queue at the post office in the UK? Think again. It took me 15 minutes to collect a parcel yesterday, and that was after I’d already queued for 10. Bear in mind that I have to collect everything – normal post included – from the Post Office because the Italian Postale refuses to recognise that our address exists. It should all be so straightforward:

Hand the slip of paper with my name on it to the man at the counter
Man reads name. Man gets parcel. Man gives me parcel. Exit stage left.

But instead it runs thus:

Hand the slip of paper with my name on it to the man at the counter.
Man takes paper.
Man looks at paper.
Man wonders what is written there, even though it has been written by a colleague at the Post Office.
Man takes three paces behind him to look at the two parcels left there.
Man examines paper and parcels.
Man seems unable to join dots up, so I help him out, asking to look at the parcel, which I am fairly sure is mine.
Man reluctant to accept help; reluctant to show parcel.
I try again, ‘Fammi vedere?’
This time he brings the parcel towards me, not too close, mind, it’s more of a waft, at several arms’ length… perhaps to show me the parcel properly might be to relinquish control.
I confirm it is mine.
Then we start the painful process of trying to scan the barcode.
I kid you not. He scanned it about 15 times.
Then he walked off.
With the parcel.
I saw him hand the parcel over to a colleague who disappeared with it.

Mamma mia – how difficult can this be? I am collecting a parcel with my name on it, which has already been recorded as entering the Post Office from the deliver company, hence the slip of paper in my PO box.

Some minutes later, the colleague enters, with the parcel, affirming that it has, indeed already been scanned and I am indeed allowed to remove it from the Post Office.

Eh voilà. Parcel collected.

thumb_IMG_3397_1024I think I have said before, Italians actually seem to enjoy this. Nay, they REVEL in it. Give them a reason to create an obstacle to something simple, and create it they will.

Take the procurement of school text books. Not for the Italians a simple system whereby schools receive funding, including that for text books, allowing them to purchase the books and distribute them directly to pupils at school.

No, we can make this far more exciting and protracted, which is particularly fun in the stifling heat of July, the month in which we are allowed to collect our text books.

I say merely ‘collect’ but it’s more of a process than this word implies, a process involving at least two additional bureaucratic steps; this naturally goes hand in hand with additional paper work and signatures. So, a ‘cedola’ – or coupon – is required in order for pupils to receive their books. In the case of pupils already at school, the ‘cedola’ is given in the last weeks of school – with strict instructions, however, not to take the next step before a designated period in July. For those not already at school – such as P., moving up from materna to primaria, – the cedola is obtained from the local education administrative office. Of course, precisely where in the area you leave affects just how ‘local’ this office is. But why create a system which could avoid an additional 40 minute drive?

A ‘cedola’ for each child in hand, we then go to a local ‘libraria’. The books of course, aren’t in stock in the bookshop, they have to be ordered and delivered, which means that we get two trips to the local libraria for the price of one. It’s not that this in and of itself is hard, it’s just that it’s entirely unnecessary. We don’t pay for the books, they are state funded. We don’t choose which books we want, so this isn’t an extra step designed in order for us to assert a degree of autonomy over learning.

For that matter, neither do the individual schools choose their books – they are state written, state distributed text books. Herein lies another problem of the Italian education system. A big one.

Thus at the bookshop we wait while the correct boxes on the cedola are ticked and information is entered into the computer system (the same information which has already been entered at the education administrative office, where it was required in order to enrol children at school in the first place).

In a week or so, we will be able to go back to the libraria to collect the books, which naturally will involve a little more box ticking and paper shuffling.

The whole ‘cedola’ system is simply a way in which we can overcomplicate a system that could be really quite straightforward. The beauty of it, of course, from a bureaucratic point of view, is that it allows for provision of another piece of paper, which must carry an official stamp and be signed by the ‘dirigente’ (director) of the area’s schools – a nice opportunity to assert authority and clarify hierarchies.

Maybe I’m being unfair, maybe it’s all designed specifically to keep people in work and humanity in communication. Perhaps Italy is fiercely protecting its archaic cedola system in order to keep local book stores alive and local authority officers in jobs. Perhaps the several steps required before we are in possession of our tools for learning should be seen as a triumph of the supremacy of human interaction. Perhaps this is something we will yearn for in England when we realise that our pursuit of progress and modernisation consigns us to engaging in futile and furious interactions with ‘online processes’, as we rage against machines and systems which crash on us at the crucial moment

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Setting up School

Our immersion in Italian bureaucracy a few weeks ago, when buying our piccolo fabbricato rustico, is naturally but the beginning of a segue into what we are fondly calling our bella avventura.

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While we have been fast track learning how to prune olive trees and keep vines, I have also been intrigued by my collaborations with a culturally different mindset, joining up with a small group of Italians and internationals to set up a progressive, independent school here in Tuscany.

In attempting this, I am struck by how very much more possible things are, on one level, with how very much more complicated they are on another. Thus I alternate between being inspired and frustrated. Establishing a school, albeit a modest prototype at present, ironically feels infinitely more possible here than it would do in the UK. There are laws here, but there are also interpretations of laws and there are the odd laws that are more ‘belle’ than ‘brutte’. So while the state school system is rigid to a T, and entering a regular state school classroom would remind one of 1950s England, a key law governing education of children states only that parents have a duty to ensure that their ‘child is educated’. This is markedly different from a law saying that parents have a duty to send their children to school. So far, not so very different from UK law which allows for children to be homeschooled.

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The school building, set among fields and vineyards.

What marks Italy as an interesting place in which to try to do something different is the way in which it is possible to move from homeschooling (and frankly, anyone who can homeschool his or her own child deserves to be kept in mind for canonization) to setting up an establishment which can deliver education, but is not subject to the application forms, red tape, rules and approval that would be needed to create a Free School in the UK or indeed the regulations that a quick google reveal are required to establish a UK based private school. Thus here, an associazione is formed, fees for schooling are taken in the form of monthly subscriptions to the association, of which all parents and children attending school automatically become members. The school is therefore established and run in essentially the same way as a sports or social club, with a committee of a minimum of three named persons responsible for finance and administration thereof. The school’s articles, which we have written, are as wide and all encompassing as possible, allowing for the school to diversify as it grows.

Bingo, we are essentially setting up a very, very small quasi-private school. Freed from the fetters of state education administration, we are freed from such absurd rules as that which requires permission for a parent to donate to pupils photocopies of an educational book on growing your own vegetables…For sure, there will be stumbling blocks ahead and Italian bureaucracy will no doubt frustrate frequently, but within impossibilities here, it is the glimmers of possibilities which have allowed us to get this far that we need to pursue.

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Clearing the building

Bringing an Anglo-Saxon mindset to a meeting with a group of Italians on getting the school up and running, however, is another story. I am drawing on all my Arab blood and background to try to bring to the fore a mentality more akin to the Italians in the group. An early meeting was a perfect illustration of the confusione we have to overcome to make this project operate. Present: two Italian from the north; one Italian from the south; one British-other (that’s me; I feel the ‘other’ Arab blood is of particular importance in such circumstances); one Swiss/American (C.); one British/Ukrainian (A.) and one British (N.) who has lived here for years, speaks fluent Italian and has agreed to coordinate and facilitate meetings and the cultural exchange.   The distinction between the Italians from the north and from the south is important, the mindset of Italians being so regionally specific.

Arriving home from the meeting, which had run for two hours, and would have continued had we not curtailed it, Tom asked me how it had gone. I was, rarely for me, a little lost for words. Finally, I came up with ‘indescribable’. Under the impression that the meeting’s purpose had been to distill the school’s philosophy into a succinct and marketable form which could be used to attract more parents; to consider in more detail what the school day would look like; to allocate specific roles to group members and to discuss the development of the website, I felt slightly detached from myself as the ‘meeting’ unfolded before me. A. opened the meeting with a clear statement and focus, but within minutes we seem to have digressed entirely from any decision making on the point made, and thoughts flitted about, covering the teaching day, drawing parents in, what we wanted children to feel like.  All lovely points, but none of them particularly to the point.  As the discussion descended into a debate between the northern and southern contingents of the group, A. and I tried to bring the meeting back to the focus, and I tried to translate mentally, contribute verbally (my Italian feeling hopelessly broken and inadequate) and respond to endearing comments la Principessa’s was whispering in my ear.  This cycle of a point being made, followed by elaborate and inconclusive discussion repeated itself throughout the meeting, to such a point that when A. asked N. for translation of what exactly was going on, N. laughed that he couldn’t really translate, there not even being agreement between the Italians. C. went off to stretch in despair at trying to operate like this and I continued to feed rice cakes to la Principessa, who was blissfully unaware of any sense of lack of achievement, happy to have me sitting still in one place for more than five minutes so that she could keep up with her running commentary, (‘Ah, Mamma, num-num. Nice num-num. Mamma no eat num-num? Me more num-num.’ And so on)

Just as A., C. and I were at the point of deciding to quit while ahead and take our toddlers home to bed, there was a flurry of action and a delegation of roles: A. and I were to work on distilling the philosophy, I was to work on curriculum overview and A. was to take on the website development.

So that’s all good then.

And thus, it seems to me, we played out the physical equivalent of an Italian newspaper article, in which the ‘noce’ of the story is often completely obfuscated within elaborate, embellished, albeit beautiful, language and style. Precision and focus in writing is perceived as cold and the same, I feel, would be true of a meeting driven by a clear, formal agenda. Yet at the end of the meeting, there was a sense of movement and progression. As my friend, married to a Sicilian, pointed out to me later, it’s about putting aside the Anglo-Saxon expectation of how things ‘should’ be done, and recognizing that there is more than one way to operate. The Italian interest in the ornate linguistically transposes itself into its modus operandi. There are many challenges ahead in bringing this school to fruition, not least the culturally different mindsets of those of us who are involved. But, handled correctly, the conflation of the organizational discipline of the Anglo Saxon mindset and the internal know-how and sensitivities of the Italians, could ultimately be the strength of the school. Indescribable, yes – or rather, not something I would describe as a meeting… but mulling it over since, I have hopes that our diversity could prove the strength to realise the vision, and in this little corner of Tuscany we will found an exciting, inspiring and progressive educational experience.

 

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Rainbows

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Key with a View

We are the proud owners of this key.

key

The hand over of the key, in exchange for a cheque, was a ceremonial process at the end of a five hour meeting, involving a mere twelve people who each signed their names some 22 times between the hours of 11 am and 4.15 pm.

We can only be in Italy.

Yes, this is how one purchases property and land in this country which relishes bureaucracy with the same attention to detail as it does a simple bowl of pasta. The translator (one of the twelve people involved in the meeting), seemed intent on making sure I was absolutely clear about this, when she phoned me three days after The Purchase Meeting, apparently to make sure that ‘now [you understand] what we mean by things taking time and having to be done properly in Italy’.

I cut the conversation short, (she would happily have spent an hour talking me through the various idiosyncrasies of existing here), assuring her that I was quite aware that we are in bureaucracy heaven. Where else would you pay for land and property with a cheque book? Yes, at the end of The Purchase Meeting, the notaio (notary) started tapping numbers into the archaic receipt printer on his desk and a ream of receipt paper curled its way towards the floor. After about two metres of receipts were printed out, he announced the final figures and we wrote out cheques for land, property, translator’s fees, notary fees and taxes. One has to celebrate the fact that there’s a great deal of trust involved on the side of recipients that cheques will hold good. Apparently CHAPS payments do exist here. But how much more fun it is to sit through a five hour meeting than simply to wait for an impersonal phone call to assure one that payment has gone through and the key can now be collected from the agent’s office?

Strictly speaking, actually, we had not quite reached the end of the meeting: the translator was painstakingly editing the translated contract, typing with two fingers, to include the few extra words and phrases the notaio had altered during the reading of the contracts. Having laboriously hand written the changes after the notaio had read the contract for the first time, in Italian, we spent the next hour listening to the translator re-read the document, in English, a responsibility which afforded her the stage she so obviously craved, revelling in the utmost precision, pausing frequently for rhetorical effect. Given that Tom and I had been reading the English document as the notaio read the Italian only two hours before, we didn’t feel this second reading in our language was strictly necessary. Even the notaio was spotted dozing off in his leather chair at the head of the table.

It was as the vendor went for another cigarette and we reached the 30 minute mark waiting for the translator to finish on the computer, that we heard that she’d had a personal crisis: her mother had had her bag stolen, so she was fielding calls on this. Given she was typing with said two fingers, I didn’t think we stood much chance of her multi-tasking phone calls to mamma with completing the electronic document, so I suggested to the notaio we move on to signatures or cheque writing. Or something to move us towards being home before sundown. Our dear friend and witness to proceedings (in Italy, one needs someone to witness the notaio witnessing the translator translating into English, witnessing us understanding the English, a convoluted multi-check process which exemplifies an inbuilt reluctance by anyone to take responsibility for anything), was whispering to her four year old daughter that it would be better to eat merenda (afternoon snack) with Daddy, than wait for mamma to come home for it.

Signing the documentation, was of course, not straightforward. There were five copies of the contract in Italian, (to be accompanied later by five copies of the contract in English), together with five additional sheets. Tom and I had already had our knuckles rapped at 11 am, when we had signed the privacy and identity documentation (at least three times apiece) using only our first and last names, and in my case – illegibly. I wasn’t aware that it was a requirement of signatures to be legible? Thus we were primed to write our full names – middle included (I have two, this was a source of some consternation, but fortunately I am capable of writing four words in a row) – and in a clear style. Anyone who has tried to read a card written by me, will know that a requirement of legibility demanded a change to my writing, but it was Tom who was pulled up this time: he had to repeat his first five afternoon signatures. Apparently they looked too like print, and he needed to write them in ‘corsivo’. This slowed the process down only a little, however; far more time consuming was the way in which the notaio asked the first signatory to sign all 15 sheets before re-stacking them into their original order to move them all onto the second signatory. Fortunately the vendor’s three adult children were as keen as Tom and I were to speed the process up, and lined themselves up, pen in hand, ready to sign, move sheet on, sign, move sheet on. Of course, there was a strict order in which signatories were to sign, which was no doubt connected to some unspoken hierarchy: naturally, the notaio signed last in a  ceremonial process conducted in the final minutes. Incidentally, his signature, large and sprawling, was entirely illegible. It was, however, in corsivo.

Thus ended The Purchase Meeting. We left with the key, five cheques fewer in our cheque book. And not a single piece of paper. Apparently we will be summoned at a later date to collect documentation once it has been made official.

 

And the key with a view? It’s the key to this piccolo fabbricato rustico, standing amongst cherry and fig trees and looking over our vines and our olive trees. A key with a view, holding our dreams.

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casa view

 

 

 

 

La Burocrazia Italiana

Ah, La Burocrazia Italiana, I come to understand it in different ways, each day.

I have decided of late that Italians wear this bureaucracy as something of a badge of pride. “Ah, questa Italia….’, ‘Ah, questa la burocrazia Italiana’… ‘Ah, benvenuta in Italia….’

Incredibly, manifestations of Italian bureaucracy find their ways into every part of Italian life… it almost seems to influence la lingua. Now, I like language and I love grammar. There, I’ve said it: I actually really love knowing how words fit together into sentences, I enjoying debating the use of the predicate of ‘to be’ in written and spoken form. But I digress. Even as a grammar-loving would-be linguist, I find Italian grammar archaic and faintly baffling. Italian verbs exist in 14 forms: seven simple tenses and seven compound tenses. In reality, Italians probably use only a handful of them on a regular basis in speech. Nevertheless, they exist and children are taught them rigorously in school, alongside a variety of verbal moods and intentions. While to get along happily speaking Italian on a daily basis is no different from learning any language by immersion, even I am tempted to set Italian grammar aside for a very rainy day. Or make that month. Teaching the correct use of the possessive apostrophe in English seems chicken feed by comparison.

This labyrinthine obfuscation is manifested beautifully in Italian law. I’ve been told that whenever new laws are passed in Italy, rather than replacing or revoking existing laws they are simply melded on, the effect of which is that for every law in Italy, there appears to exist its opposite or a contradiction. (Very possibly this is not actually that dissimilar to English Tort, but – to the outsider at least, it seems that Italians wear this obscurity with some pride.) To this end, it’s impossible to get a straight response to anything. The answer depends not only on whom you ask, but when you ask him or her and I have found, whether you ask again… and again… and again.

By way of illustration:

I went to procure Tom’s codice fiscale. Now, when I went to get the children’s and mine a while back, I was asked whether my husband needed one. No, he didn’t at the time so I didn’t get it (an oversight on my part, but I do seem to specialize here in creating extra work for myself in these situations). Thus it was, a month or so ago, that I returned to said office – and, by chance, to exactly the same officer who had served me last summer – to procure Best Beloved’s codice fiscale. This, by the way, is a computer generated reference without which it is impossible to do anything here – even, as I found out – buy a pay-as-you-go mobile phone SIM card. Seated in front of said officer I pulled out all our documents – and I mean all of them, I had gone prepared, with every certificate, passport, driving licence, proof of address we had between us. ‘Ah, non e possibile’ because he’s not present. I stalled him – hang on a minute – this had been perfectly possible just six months ago when you asked me if I wanted to generate his codice fiscale at the same time as those of the rest of the family, when he had also not been present. Apparently, on this next visit, it was absolutely not possible. The stand off began. It continued thus: me explaining that he recalled the last visit (I stand out somewhat here in this un-touristy region of Italy, being English, with three children, two of whom are very bionde, all three of whom are pretty noisy; people tend to recall us); me pointing to the three children before me (all of whom were conveniently getting hungry), reminding him that I have travelled an hour to get here… me wondering if it really was impossible to generate this code now? It’s amazing what happens when you ask the same question several times over… miraculously, I could sign Best Beloved’s name for him and procure the coveted codice fiscale. There’s something to be said for this bureaucracy then. It’s a sort of ‘computer says no, but actually I could try to find a way if I feel sympathy for you’.

There’s actually a reason for this, it seems and it’s rooted in the Robin Hood-esque behaviour of underclasses rebelling against the feudal system which strangled Italy for so many years. Herein lies the reason that to call someone ‘furbo’ – slightly cunning, is said with a slight hint of admiration. And it’s something we might need to learn, as we are about to embark on a whole new step in our Italian adventure…

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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.

 

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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La Vita … Formula 1

Living on a remote track in an olive grove with a stunning view necessitates a life style transition from walking to car. Accustomed as I was, whatever the weather, to dropping la Principessa into our beloved Silver Cross and setting off with H. and P. running or scooting alongside me (anything, so long as it was ‘at pace’), this new car reality takes some getting used to.

Fresh out of school at 18, a group of friends and I drove to France (yes, I’m a crazy chick, no shenanigans in Ibiza for me). I didn’t think twice then about driving on the right in unfamiliar territory – and this was in the dark ages, before mobile phones and SatNavs – how did we manage it? In my 20s, I hired a car and drove round Syria and Lebanon becoming accustomed to much gesticulation and horn hooting from irate locals to whom rules of traffic lights, road systems and giving way don’t apply.

So really, driving in Italy should be a breeze, but Italian drivers are something else – this becomes clear as you cross the border from France. Do they don an imaginary crash helmet to embark on a personal Formula One track each time they get into the car? If you come to visit us in Italy, these are my top motor related tips.

  • The left and right hand side of the road bear little relation to the positioning of oncoming vehicles; indeed any number of facts can affect road positioning: wanting to drive in the shade; wanting to avoid a particularly hazardous road surface; wanting to take the racing line on a bend/round about/junction.
  • There’s a need to be in the lead: it’s boring being behind another vehicle, so overtake when possible. Hair pin bends, the peaks of hills or when the car in front of you signals to turn left – these are all perfectly bonafide positions from which to overtake. In fact, the narrower the gap before said hazard, the better – it’s all about the F1 track you’re on, after all.
  • Modification to the above ‘when the car in front of you signals’ – by this I mean, when I signal to turn left – ours seems to be the only car in this area which uses its indicators, or at least, uses them before the event. Italians make their turn, and then occasionally flick the indicators on as if to acknowledge the preceding manoeuvre.
  • Pedestrian crossings may be for pedestrians, but take them at your peril: there is no guarantee oncoming vehicles will slow down on seeing someone step out onto the stripped road.
  • Roundabouts are round, but there ends the comparison to such junctions in the UK; do not assume merely because you are on the roundabout that cars joining it will give way – see above on both the need for speed and the enjoyment of keeping distances between vehicles and hazards as close as possible.
The only vehicles round here likely to hold one up on the road.

The only vehicles round here likely to hold one up on the road.

  • Drive at speed at all costs: the only cars likely to hold me back on the road are the clapped out ‘tuc-tuc’ trucks required for accessing the uppermost roads on hill top towns.

We are acclimatizing, though, while still retaining our far more British habits. I’m attempting a single-handed reformation of Italian drivers, hooting fiercely when someone overtakes me dangerously, this is invariably followed closely by the children chanting, ‘Crazy Italian driver!”.

We recently went to meet a friend holidaying nearby: according to SatNav it was to take 75 minutes. I set off with the children, heading over the mountain to the other side. We were seemingly in the middle of a fairly barren plain, but only 30 minutes away from our destination. As we neared our turning off the strada principale, we saw a small barrier across the road we wanted; the sign post was covered with netting, the closure fairly categorical. But there the Italians left us – no diversion signs, no indications of alternative routes. We carried blithely on our way – I assumed another road heading in the same direction would appear shortly. But as we continued further up the strada principale, Mrs SatNav became more and more insistent: ‘Turn around where possible. Turn Around Where Possible. TURN AROUND WHERE POSSIBLE’. It would appear that, not all roads lead to Rome, or Montepulciano, in this case. We turned around where possible and headed back, double checking that the road we wanted really was closed. Yes, definitively closed and definitively no indication of alternative routes.

Mrs SatNav was thoroughly confused by the road closure, insisting on this route, so I resorted to a good, old fashioned, paper map, both relieved that I’d remembered to put it in the car and vowing that I would teach H. to read maps. Thus we continued on our now fairly circuitous way; there were very few cars in sight, even fewer when we turned off the main road onto a gravel track. I was slightly dubious, but there was a road sign to Montepulciano and I reasoned that we did at least have the right car for off-roading. After 15 solitary minutes on this road, I started to mull over what would happen in the event of a breakdown. How would I even begin to explain where we were in my still nascent Italian, particularly when I didn’t even know precisely where we were myself? Fortunately, this eventuality did not present itself and our cross country route spat us out on another main road, a short distant from Montepulciano. Driving up to the popular medieval hill top town on a one way system skirting the edge and finding a parking space big enough for our beast of a car was altogether another story, however…

Brilliant blog posts on HonestMum.com

Plums, polishing and preparing

We are in the midst of a veritable glut of plums. The wild boar is happy with the rotting windfalls and the birds seem less interested in the plums than our figs (the figs of this blog’s name – more anon!) so we have had three happy harvests already.

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The plum harvest has justified my bringing from England the basket you see in the picture. That was a last minute ‘it doesn’t quite fit but it looks like the kind of basket we should have in Italy’ squeeze into the car. Later in the year, naturally, it will be used in a more romantic kind of way – perhaps for a picnic à deux on the mountain or by the fresh water pools? Engineering such will require some childcare assistance, but I’m ever hopeful!

Almost Bakewell Plum Tart

Almost Bakewell Plum Tart

The first gathering of our plums yielded some six kilos, the second over five and the third a further six kilos. That’s a lot of plums! I’ve frozen some whole and made a variation of Abel and Cole’s plum compote out of another batch. We have gorged on plums for breakfast, lunch, afternoon snacking at the pool (slightly warm and squashed – not so good). And, to celebrate our newly repaired oven, we have even baked – isn’t it satisfying that healthy fruit can be combined with eggs, butter and sugar to produce a delectable, not so healthy, feast? We made a variation of a Smitten Kitchen purple plum torte– that was devoured in one sitting with requests for more of the same. It’s quite a feat baking in this heat, even for me, and everything takes three times longer slaving over the proverbial hot stove with three pairs of helpful hands involving themselves in the action. But three pairs of hands there most definitely were today for the production of this sort of this Almost Bakewell Plum Tart, a sort of variation of Jamie Oliver’s Crostata Di Fichi: the owners of those hands were caught up in preparation for the welcoming of la Nonna and there was great insistence on full involvement.

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Left over pastry made into Mamma’s Rustic Plum and Compote Tarts,

Excitement crescendos as we move towards Nonna’s arrival: the children have made flags to wave in greeting at the train station, welcoming cards for her room and P. has proved incredibly helpful fiercely polishing windows and cleaning the bathroom. Please note: I did not enlist his labour, and certainly wasn’t intending to clean the house so thoroughly! I’m not sure whether his eagerness was fuelled by love of Nonna or a desire to replenish his purse, having spent his entire year’s savings on a new Lego kit. I rather suspect the latter, though we did not agree a price for work in advance – I clearly need to verse him in negotiation and bargaining skills!

Excitement builds within me too: someone here all day! Someone here all night! For 12 days! Of course, what I really mean is I can’t wait to see la mia mamma so I cut out the parenthesis which read “(to help)”… but I am quite pleased that said mamma arrives on the coastal train from Ventimiglia, fresh from a two week séjour in St Tropez no less. I mention this only because I wish to clarify that she has had a delicious rest by the salt water swimming pool, dining on du fromage accompanied by du vin rosé de Provence, so I’m hoping that she will arrive energized, relaxed and, err… ready to assist a little?