A brilliant holiday
We had a fantastic holiday. All eight of us sailed through the experience: chilly rain in Berlin, a dingy little hotel in Munich, suffocating heat in Rome, Valentina's restlessness at the beach and dull, never ending days in the grandparents’ tiny village.
We enjoyed every minute of it, got on very well together and agreed on every thing (or better still, everybody had the chance to disagree and suggest alternatives).
We never had an argument or even a bicker or a brief altercation, and managed to cope with Valentina, my autistic daughter, taking turns without comment. We just played with her and took care of her whenever she approached one of us. Besides we did a lot of sight-seeing, had a good rest, ate good food and enjoyed life as a family.
Only my third son was less happy than the others about our holiday because he didn’t have a friend with him, while my eldest one had his girlfriend and my daughter also took a friend (the girlfriend’s sister).
Before the holiday, in a desperate mood, he had told me he didn’t want to go anywhere that summer as, he said, Lancaster has got everything. There is seaside, countryside, Williamson Park and there are lakes nearby...and his PS3, the forty-two inch TV and the comfy sofa all to himself, I might add.
Coming back to England there were unusually high temperatures of 20-25°C. This was heaven after 38°C and 35% humidity in Rome.
Great commitments wait for me next term, besides my job as an Italian tutor. I am in the second year of my MA in creative writing at Lancaster University, which I am enjoying greatly. The final task will be to complete a portfolio of about 30,000 words of prose by August 2012. It will be tough, but I’ll do my best to achieve it.
In Autumn I am invited to give a number of readings. These start on Friday 16th September at Spotlight (8 pm, Storey Auditorium, Lancaster). I am going to read my poems from A Winding Road and some flash fiction pieces. On Tuesday 8th November I am reading more flash fiction at Novel Café in Lancaster (6.30 pm, New Street) where a bi-monthly reading has started to raise money for the Review Back&Beyond (http://www.molliebaxter.com/the-first-night-at-the-forum). Finally on Thursday 10th November I am reading my poems again at the Storey for the event April Poets organized by Carol Coates, Mike Barlow and Ron Scowcroft. I am very excited about it.
In Italy I learned new recipes, of course! These I am going to post in this blog during the year, including excellent tips to make pizza and homemade pasta.
Not to neglect my artistic side I am also planning to take part in Christmas craft fairs with my cards (there is a new section about cards on my website) and fabric painting items.
Back to my holidays, I haven’t forgotten to write a summer journal , of course, and I am going to post it in September.
Enjoy the last warm days.
Berlin, Act 1
We arrived in Berlin in the afternoon after a quiet flight. The eight of us had been scattered about the plane, as when we boarded most of the seats were taken (did we linger too long on cokes and chips?). We relaxed, trusting to meet again without fail on arrival.
We knew the hotel was far from the airport and from the centre of Berlin, so we asked for information about the train service and dragged our tiny hand luggage (only 21 inches by 14 because of the strict controls on low cost flights), plus two substantial suitcases, into the open air.
The weather was gorgeous, almost hot. We took off the jumpers we had donned because of the air conditioning in the plane. In the train we started sweating and I thought, if it is so hot in Germany how unbearably suffocating will it be in Italy?
After a couple of trains we reached Frankfurter Alee, where our hotel was, a large avenue with tall anonymous buildings that vaguely reminded me of something similar I had seen in Kiev, though the German ones were in much better shape.
The hotel was surprisingly good, especially considering the price we had paid, probably due to the fact that it was not in the city centre and Berlin is not such a popular tourist destination, unlike other European capitals. We had one double room for the boys and two triple ones for me, my husband and Valentina and for the girls. The breakfast was not included but my husband assured me we it wouldn't be a meagre breakfast with German cakes and pastries.
In the first part of this journal I said we had no arguments. To be honest, we had a tiny one in Berlin as soon as I unpacked and realized several items, like creams, shampoo and Vale’s night nappies, which I had piled near our suitcases two days before we left, were missing. My husband (the wonder packing-man who is capable of fitting everything in the right place without wasting an inch of space) was sure he had packed everything and asked my third son, who had helped him, if he remembered them. He said that he did. In fact he had moved them onto the living room table and left them there, waiting for us on our return. The positive side of the matter was that our suitcase had reached the weight limit and we couldn’t have possibly added even one bottle of shampoo. Luckily the hotel provided all we needed for a relaxing bath or an invigorating shower. I lay on the bed looking around at the modern, wood-panelled room with TV set and comfy armchairs, aware we had started on the right foot.
At dinner we were all in a good mood and all wanted to eat Italian food. By sheer chance, just outside the hotel there was an Italian restaurant with tables outside and people chatting and drinking. It was an ideal setting for our first dinner out, and no need to go far: we were all pretty tired. Here Valentina, and not only she, discovered Caprese, a typical Italian dish made with tomatoes and mozzarella, which would become the most popular main course of the whole holiday. The waiters spoke an Italian which sounded as if it were translated from German, but were very friendly and professional. An Italian lady sitting at a table near us offered to show us the best sites to visit on a map. Everything was delicious, and how relaxing to not have to cook and wash up!
The next day we set off for our tour. But before diving into the underground we stopped for breakfast at a bakery my husband had spotted the night before while he was looking for nappies. A sumptuous display of massive fruits , chocolate, cream cakes and huge pastries was spread before our eyes. Layers of creams under mandarin, raspberries and gooseberries covered with jelly, curls of milk chocolate on top of four-inch high cakes and plump puffs filled with strawberry cream or custard. We ordered a pastry or a piece of cake each (actually my husband had three and the rest of us shared, as the portions were very big) and a hot or cold drink. I expected to leave there at least fifty Euros lighter. Instead, the bill was half this, about three Euros each. A delicious bargain.
On the walls of the bakery there were pictures inspired by bread making: a naked woman holding a dress made with bread rolls, two warriors with a bread shield, a girl playing baseball with a baguette-bat.
In the underground there were no turnstiles so we stamped our tickets at the machines before getting on the train. But once on the train, a stout blond lady in black uniform entered our carriage and stood in front of the passage to the next carriage, blocking any way out, and firmly asked for tickets.
The first stop was Alexander Platz, where we had our first photo together, near a fountain with mermaids and other sea creatures. My husband held the guide book and the map and led us to Museum Island. In fact Berlin is well known for its museums. In Museum Island there are five, then there is the Kulturforum, west of the centre, near Postdamer Platz, a huge edifice with five more museums inside, and other small ones scattered around the city. It was a real treat for museum goers like us, but we decided to spare the children this time and picked on only two must-see museums leaving the rest to their free choice and free time.
A good chunk of the first day was dedicated to Pergamon Museum, which hosts the Pergamon Altar, actually a reconstruction of its west front with fragments of its large frieze all around, and other important Greek, Roman and near eastern antiquities, plus the museum of Islamic Art.
The frieze was impressive. It represents a battle between the Olympian gods and snake-footed giants, celebrating the victory of the gods, to whom the altar was consecrated. It was probably built to commemorate a victory of Pergamon people against invaders, or to thank the gods for their favours to the prosperous city. Originally the temple was about 35 metres wide and 33 metres deep, surrounded by marble columns, the frieze was around the base and there were statues on the top. They say the figures must have been painted in bright colours, not white as we are used to seeing them today. The scenes in high relief are strikingly vivid: Athena grasping the hair of a giant, a snake biting the shield of Hekate, a warrior fighting against a lion and kicking its genitals. Pergamon was in Asia Minor, now called Turkey. It was so rich and powerful that the Pergamon Altar was only an average size edifice among other large buildings, according to the scale reconstruction I could see in the museum.
In the afternoon we walked to Postdamer Platz as it was another sunny day and split in two groups: my daughter, her friend and I headed to the Vision & Fashion exhibition at the Kulturforum and the rest had their own free time. I admired the unfailingly artistic side of the exhibition, outstanding in the sketches. Some pictures by Jaqueline Ostermann were particularly brilliant: four figures in elegant outfits and animal heads, a tiger, a wild cat, a crane and a Great Dane. I remember the crane was in skinny jeans, blue navy vest and black blazer and the Dane wore a white suit and white scarf. Needless to say the outfits matched perfectly with the heads. They also had some videos. One of them was a catwalk where all the models were naked, except for high heeled shoes, and ended with a pregnant bride wearing only a white veil on her head and a bunch of flowers in her hands.
Walking home after a quick and cheap dinner at Burger King we crossed a man wearing a white shirt, black tie, waistcoat and blazer, a top hat and red shorts. A spot of colour in such an apparently ordinary city.
Berlin, act 2
The second day it started raining, drizzling at first. We opened our umbrellas, one between two, to find that they were half broken. Never mind: it wasn’t pouring and it wasn’t cold yet. I wore my Shoe Zone rubber sole sandals, both because I couldn’t bring another pair of shoes as there was no space in the luggage and because I made up my mind to wear only sandals no matter what weather as it was summer time.
We had planned to see what remained of the infamous Wall and its graffiti and we stuck to this in spite of the rain. It was an awfully interesting walk. The paintings and the messages or poems that completed most of them were clear and colourful cries for freedom and peace against oppression. We took a lot of photos and looked for souvenirs, but there was only a small shop with some postcards and nothing special. There was no protection along the Wall against vandalism and nothing to control the flow of tourists.
The same thing was true for Check Point Charlie. This was one of the border crossings between the American and Soviet parts of the city, symbol of the sad separation inside Berlin and the yearning for freedom of all the eastern citizens who tried to cross it wishing to escape Soviet communism (there is a long list of east Germans who were killed or jailed in the attempt). It is at a crossroads, cars and buses coming and going, crowds of tourists taking photos and trying to read the panels along the roads around it about the meaning and history of the place. Honestly, it's a bit of a mess. They should close it to the traffic and create an open air museum instead.
To keep to the theme of oppression, we also visited the Jewish museum, a grey steel modern building with a zigzag shape. The entrance leads you underground to bare corridors that display artefacts recalling the persecution of the Jews and the concentration camps. The final point of the lower level is the Holocaust tower, a windowless high dark space that really made me feel the oppression and hopelessness the Jews might have felt during incarceration.
The other levels are about Jewish history, traditions and art in Berlin from Middle Ages till today. A good part is again about persecution. Many questions came to my mind: Why? Is their religion a problem? What did they do wrong? I don’t think their religion was the real problem but only a pretext. The main reason why they were persecuted was because they were a strong competitive group that could become too powerful and economically dangerous and might take the place of the non-Jewish. And that’s all. The evidence which makes this clear is that when in 19th century some of them became Christians to be more accepted and respected and to have access to jobs and positions forbidden to Jewish people, they were discriminated against just the same. So there is no idealism or morality or belief or justification in the persecution of the Jews (as in any oppression) only mere convenience, self-protection and the propaganda of a majority who needs to get rid of a minority that is emerging and threatens their power.
To lift our hearts and keep up the holiday spirit we went shopping in the afternoon in the most famous department store in Berlin: Ka De We. Well, we would have liked to go shopping but the prices were so high (there was a pen for ten thousand Euros) that we wandered around most of the time. However, on the toys and books floor I found a collection of CDs by Maria Callas, at sale price, for my father, whose birthday is in August. The souvenirs were out of our price range. A small wooden figure about one inch high was nearly twenty Euros.
The following day was our last day in Berlin and it was pouring down and chilly. My sandals soaked through in a ten minute walk. We opted for a museum and more shopping centres. The museum was the Gemäldegalerie, a gallery with a large collection of pictures from the Middle Ages to 18th century. There were few outstanding pictures, though (one Caravaggio, one Vermeer and a striking picture by Rembrandt: the Rape of Proserpina, where the light flashes on the goddess' rich, pale dress while the rest of the picture is dark) and not many visitors. All the titles of the pictures and the few comments were in German, which is not my piece of cake, and the audio guides were not available.
Alexa, the shopping centre, was huge, crowded and bright. We didn’t want to go back in the rain so we spent many hours there. We also had dinner inside, splitting into different groups according to our different tastes. Some fancied Chinese, some Nordsee (fish) and others McDonald’s.
Before leaving for Munich we had our last breakfast at the same bakery and shopped at Aldi for the six-hour train journey. The lady at the till saw I had some carrier bags in the trolley (my carrier bags). She indicated that I lift them in case I was hiding (stealing?) something. There was nothing. She didn’t apologize. I didn’t realize I had a suspicious manner.
We travelled in first class, for the first time in my life. It happened because when we booked on line the difference in price, for eight tickets, between first and second class was only ten Euros. We spent the six hours in comfortable soft seats eating grapes, cherries and Haribo candy.
I almost finished the first book of three short story collections I had brought with me. It was Moral Disorder by Margaret Atwood, a brilliant, witty, delicate book. The stories are linked, but loosely, and the same characters appear and disappear as in a labyrinth. After each story we know a bit more about them but never too much. It is not a novel. The narration twists, turns, and returns. Even the last page of the last story is not an ending, but an open door to memories and imagination.
All in all I had a pleasant journey, only slightly spoiled at the end by a nasty misunderstanding with the ticket lady, a blond stout woman in black uniform similar to the ticket collector we met in the underground. I had noticed she had looked disappointed when she had checked our tickets and my debit card without finding any faults. I thought that maybe we didn’t look like first class people (and we aren’t) or she was just pissed off for her own reasons: nothing to do with us. At a certain point in the journey my son found her standing in front of the toilet when he stepped out after a good pee and sh**.
She said: “Smoking? You can’t smoke here!”
My son said: “Can you smell smoke?” But it only smelled of pee, like all train toilets, even first class ones. She didn’t apologize. I suppose it is a difficult word in German.
I didn't know about the episode until we arrived in Munich, or I would have made it clear to the lady that nobody smokes in our family, which is why I booked a No Smoking carriage. And that’s that, meine liebe Frau.
Munich, Act 1
Our stay in Munich was a very different matter. We had booked a hotel near the centre, but close to the railway station which was a bit rough. After our beautiful accommodation in Berlin this one looked rather dreary.
Just to begin with, I had half an hour's discussion with the man at the reception, a dark, chubby fellow with a disarmingly friendly face. He spoke English fairly well and said we had booked two rooms with breakfast included. I said I had booked three rooms but we could make do with two, a room for three for my husband and the boys, and a room for five for me, Valentina and the older girls. He said we had booked only a double and a triple: but we were eight. I had my printed reservation with me and I showed him I had booked one double and two triple rooms. He replied that if I wanted another room I had to pay more. I thought it was too much but the receptionist stuck to his guns. I called my husband, who was waiting outside with the children, and we spoke with the booking office on the phone (my husband speaks German too). I said I wanted to be fair, but if he didn't budge I would go to the police. After other ten minutes discussion he finally understood. The misunderstanding was in the way he received the reservation. It said:
1 double room
2 triple room
He had read this as:
1) double room
2) triple room
When everything was clear we smiled again, shook hands and three keys suddenly appeared on the counter.
As I said the en suite rooms were nothing special but they were clean. The breakfast was too early for our holiday timetable (it finished at 9:30) and was rather unattractive after the cakes we had had in Berlin, so the children decided to skip it, after the first morning, to have more time to sleep and get ready.
That night it was Saturday night and the centre of Munich was full of tourists. Karl’s Gate, the west entrance of the old town, which is a pedestrian area, was only five minutes’ walk from our hotel. Choirs singing, buskers playing, mime artists performing and quartets enchanting the passers-by with Mozart, Rossini and Bizet welcomed us. It was charming, cheerful, entertaining: very different from the stiff regular Berlin.
We had the traditional wurst with potatoes and beer (I had the beer) in a garden area with wooden tables and benches. It was warmer than in Berlin so people took their time outside, chatting and drinking.
The following morning at about eight o'clock, a dog started to bark in the entrance hall, waking up the whole hotel. After breakfast we had a walk around and headed to the Alte Pinakothek, an art gallery hosted in a massive building with a huge entrance hall and endless staircases. Being in Bavaria, an infamously Catholic region, there were plenty of Saints, Nativities and Altar pieces, and room after room of Rubens’ pictures. He is not one of my favourite painters and probably, given his huge production, a great part of his pictures must have been painted by his assistants. Nevertheless, his large canvasses show such movement in the figures and animals, such skilful drawing and perfect representation of fabric, armours and jewels, such bright colours and vitality, that you cannot but admire his paintings.
In the afternoon we were so tired we had to rest in the hotel. For dinner we felt we needed a substantial meal. We chose Pizza Hut and started with caprese, salad and garlic bread, then four large crusty pizza margherita, and to end high-calorie desserts plus several refills of soft drinks. We had certainly enjoyed our day!
Munich, act 2
On our last day in Munich we were in two minds what to do. The weather was unstable and the children were tired of visiting museums. We thought we might go to the cinema and hoped Kung Fu Panda 2 was on, but the only cinema showing films in their original language had Harry Potter (which we had already seen) and Cars (which we felt was too much of a children’s movie).
We let the day unwind and walked in the old centre to watch the knights' tournament and the carillon figurines dancing in the Neues Rathaus clock tower: all in Marienplatz, one of the most beautiful and lively squares in the world. I loved the fact that not very far from St. Mary’s column a group of people flying the Green Party flag were celebrating a gay marriage and toasting the couple with champagne.
After the clock finished its performance we strolled through the nearby market, Viktualienmarkt, and bought some souvenirs to bring to Italy: typical animals made with straw, a scented wreath and a doll in traditional Bavarian costume for my collection. The prices weren’t high so we could finally indulge.
In the afternoon we decided to visit Schloss Nymphemburg, a superb palace designed by an Italian architect, and its park, as the weather was getting sunny and warm.
We had a quick trip to the Rococo apartments, lingering for a while in the fascinating King Ludwig I’s Gallery of Beauties (thirty-six portraits of women, most of them aristocrats but also ordinary women, the most famous example being Helene Sedelmayer, the daughter of a shoemaker). I spotted one Italian aristocrat (Marianna Florenzi-Waddington, a finely educated woman, close friend of the King all his life) and at least four English ones (Lady Jane Erskine, Lady Theresa Spence, Lady Emily Milbanke and Lady Jane Ellenborough, who married four times and divorced twice, ending her life in Damascus).
There was also the (in)famous Lola Montez, who wasn’t Spanish but a dancer born in Ireland. Her real name was Dolores Elisa Gilbert, a very ambitious woman, a celebrity ahead of her time. She scattered scandals about Europe and lived in India, North America and Australia. She was Ludwig I's protégée and he dismissed two Cabinets who refused to grant Lola citizenship and the title of Countess of Landsfield. Finally he obtained it but a few months later (this was in volatile1848 when rebellions against Monarchs spread all over Europe) there was a civil rebellion and the crowd went to Montez’s house and asked Lola to be deported from Bavaria. The king had to give up and abdicated in favour of his son after a month.
They were all exceptionally good-looking women, of course, though I wonder if to obtain such perfection the painter, Joseph Karl Stieler, didn’t correct some little faults: a nasty mole, a pimple, a crooked nose, cross eyes...as happens today with Photoshop.
To end our visit we had a long walk in the park. It was extraordinarily relaxing: not only because of the beautiful scenery but also the perfect weather: sunny, dry and the right temperature.
On the way back to the tram we visited the renowned Nymphemburg Porcelain Factory, which is a shop with impossible prices. A tiny china bowl about two inches high was a hundred and fifty Euro. I tried the Outlet as well, on the next entrance, with little success. Never mind, I didn’t need it.
We had dinner and packed, ready to leave on the 9pm train for Rome. We had booked bunk beds on line, second class. The ticket collector was a man this time, very blond and very polite. He checked the tickets and said he didn’t need to see any debit card or document. Finally, someone who trusts me!
As soon as we entered the compartment the girls started to act out Harry Potter, The Philosopher's Stone, the scene when Harry, Ron and Hermione meet for the first time on the train to Hogwarts.
“Has anyone seen a toad? A boy named Neville’s lost one,” one of them said.
“Are you doing magic tricks? Let’s see them,” the other asked.
“Holy cricket! You’re Harry Potter. I’m Hermione Granger,” the third one added.
It was a cracking performance.
The journey was fine, with air conditioning on all the time. The toilets...well, you know.
We arrived in Rome in the morning. The weather was sunny, of course, and the temperature still bearable. From the Termini railway station we took the Underground and a bus to reach my parents’ house. My father was waiting for us at the bus stop wearing an immaculate, short sleeved white t-shirt. Everything looked cool – not sweltering as I had expected – and we were eager to get the most out of our holiday.
At my parents’ house everything was ready for our arrival. Beds and couches were in every room, and we also had a bit of space to watch TV, play cards or read. Electric fans were in the living room and in the bed rooms. I felt confident I could face a few days in Rome without being struck down by the heat.
At night we toured the centre. It was bursting with people: the tables of the restaurants along the old alleys were full up. Chattering and laughter rose in the cool air. Ancient buildings were dimly lit, suntanned people strolled in smart outfits, clusters of pine trees and Roman columns outlined the lilac sky. We climbed up to the Capitol. The elegant simplicity of the square designed by Michelangelo plunged us in another era. Then we descended and went to see the Trajan column and walked to the Trevi fountain. It was so full of tourists we couldn’t take a photo. Eventually we headed to the Pantheon, one of my favourite places in the old centre. In a side street there is one of the best ice-cream parlours in Rome. It has flavours you can’t find anywhere else and they taste incredibly creamy and natural compared to ordinary ice-cream.
During our little tour my husband guided us and commented all the monuments and edifices. He was well versed in the history of Rome, ancient monuments, legends, Renaissance and baroque art and anecdotes about artists, Roman Emperors and Popes. He has always had a passion for the capital and when he arrived in Rome from a little village near Verona, in the north of Italy, to attend university, he was eager to know more and more and visit famous sites and museums. Instead, for me it was all very familiar, as I was born in Rome and had become used to all its important sites from my childhood.
In the few days we were spending in Rome, he had planned to take the children sightseeing in the ancient Roman part (Colosseum, Roman forum and Palatine) and the Vatican (Vatican museum and St. Peter’s). I opted to stay at home with Valentina, my autistic daughter, and my parents. I couldn’t cope with the idea of being out the whole day in the sun. Besides, I wanted to spend a bit of time with my parents, who are eighty and needed help to organize, clean and cook for all ten of us.
My mother showed me some photographs of her childhood in Tuscany, which I had never seen before. She had put them in a beautifully simple wooden frame she had inherited after the death of my uncle last year. They were old black and white photos of my grandparents, my uncle’s wedding and my mother among her cousins. She was a thin child with a fair ribbon in her dark hair. She told me she had worked in wheat fields that summer to weed the wheat from poppies and meadow grass before the harvest, because it would be hard to part the wheat from the weed after the harvest. Now there are machines to do it. This story reminded me of a famous parable in the Gospel. It actually says to keep the wheat and the weed together till harvest time because the Lord will part them. Maybe it worked in a different way about two thousand years ago in the Middle East area compared to Tuscany during WW II.
I found my parents in good health though slower and a bit weaker compared with a few years ago. I meet them about three times a year and when I am in England I remember them being stronger, as they probably were ten years ago. Seeing them ageing I feel touched and am willing to forgive them every little mistake. They also have the funny habit, typical of some elderly people, to say whatever crosses their minds, which reminds me of little children when they are not aware yet of social conventions.
They were tremendously happy to see the children and still feel helpful in some way. I prepared a menu with my mother for the days we were in Rome and started to plan our holiday week at the seaside. We went shopping at the supermarket and I noticed how hard it was for them to lift heavy shopping bags. I realized our relationship was definitely changing. Though still independent they might need more and more help from me and my sister in the near future.
I also bought newspapers and magazines every day to be more informed about what was going on in Italy. It was a hot summer not only in Rome but also in other parts of the world, like Libya, Syria, USA, Sweden and London.
While the Italian economy was inexorably sinking, the Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi kept saying there were no dangers and nothing to worry about. In the mayhem of Italian politics one good example came from the President of the Italian Republic Giorgio Napolitano who declined a rise in salary and signed up for cuts in M.P.'s pensions. This would pour about fifteen million Euros into the coffers of the Italian State. It was not a huge input, considering their salaries, but it was a beginning. Some benefits, though, remained untouched: for example a complete meal (first course, second course, side dish and dessert) at the Senate restaurant is about four Euros – more or less what I pay for my daughter’s school meal.
To save money weird suggestions popped up. One of them was to abolish bank holidays and/or some religious festivities, to make people work and produce more. But it would be hard to abolish 25th April (Liberation day at the end of WW II) or 1st May (working people day) or popular Catholic festivities (e.g. 8th December, Immaculate Conception; 1st November, All Saints’ day or 6th January, Epiphany). Possible cuts could be on pensions as well and the Italian government promised to pursue tax-dodgers mercilessly.
In this race to save whatever can be saved, scandals about girls, bribing, embezzlements and wire-tapping spread as usual. It seemed to be back to 1992 when the Mani Pulite “clean hands” scandal sunk the everlasting power of the Christian Democratic party. But now we are in a worse global economic crisis and with little hope things may improve in the near future.
I think there is a big confusion between what is right and what is wrong in Italy, or rather they think that doing wrong can be always forgiven and fixed without consequences. Unfortunately this is not always possible, unless you change direction and take the right path. Otherwise you need to accept the aftermath.
I also read some interesting articles about Italy at the time of its unification (1861). The average age was thirty-three (now it is eighty), Italian people were only twenty-two million (now they are more than sixty) and much shorter. The main worry was to make ends meet, that is have enough food in the evening to survive. Food was already a big cultural uniting factor in the Italian peninsula, not only a common concern but also a common mark of cultural identity in a country with many differentiations. Somebody hinted in the past that Italy was not a nation. It certainly is, but the problem is that the Government is often on the run.
A piece of odd news was about some prostitutes (most of them practice their job in the streets in Italy) in Rome. They rang the police because the rowdiness of the local inhabitants disturbed their work and discouraged their clients.
Last but not least, the usual hordes of immigrants arrived in boats on Italy's southern shores (about fifty thousand landings in 2011), especially in summer time when the sea is calm. Sometimes this ends in tragedy: the boat's engine breaks down and after a few days the passengers start to die for lack of food and drinkable water or because they drink sea water. The bodies are thrown overboard and the people left remain in agony till they are rescued. It happened to a ship from Libya (which had been damaged in Libyan waters). Its SOS was ignored till an Italian helicopter spotted them and managed to rescue the survivors. A film on this theme, Terraferma (mainland or dry land) by Emanuele Crialese was at the Venice Film Festival 2011. One of the actresses, Eritrean Timnit T, had undergone a similar experience and survived thanks to the urine, collected in an empty fuel can, she drank.
What can I say? Italians are better at rescuing others than themselves.
At the seaside in Grottammare
The last day we spent in Rome was suffocating. I had to have my hair cut as my hair, especially at the back of the neck, was always wet because of sweating and humid air.
At the seaside it was all another story. Our little apartments had air conditioning and the sea breeze was refreshing and dry. The girls (and the boys) were incredibly well behaved. They helped immensely by setting the table and washing up in turns and were with Valentina, my autistic daughter, most of the time, especially at the beach.
I haven’t spoken about Valentina’s behaviour till now. She was unpredictable and unsettled as usual (she ran away a few times, screamed in shops, made herself sick putting a hand in her throat) but we managed to share her problems among seven people.
Being at the beach with her is always hard because she wants to stay in the water all the time (two/three hours or more) with someone to play with. On past holidays (about nine years of past holidays!) I and my husband used to take turns in this exhausting routine. Having someone who helped us this time was a massive relief. We could rest, take a walk, have a chat, just as people usually do on holiday.
Though I couldn’t sunbathe because of a skin cancer, recently removed, (nothing dangerous luckily, it was a non-melanoma kind of skin cancer) and I had to wear a hat and a light dress all the time, I enjoyed the mild warm air, the moderately lively village of Grottammare, where two-storey houses stretch to the shore, ordinary middle class Italian couples pushing a pram and children cycling in the main square.
We had plenty of ice-creams and one night we even sat at a bar and had a gigantic sundae each. The girls were so impressed by its size that they took photos. We also rented bicycles and had a long ride on the cycling path which stretched along the coast. The sea roared nearby against the rocks; the air smelled of pine resin and croissant.
There was rough sea for two days with the red flag flapping on the beach, which meant they advised against having a swim. But it was too funny to jump into the waves and feel the current dragging you, though it might have been risky if you went too far from the shore. Needless to say, Valentina went into the water.
In the evening there were markets in the streets of the village and along the coast. The products ranged from Indian scarves, Asian silver jewels, Italian wines, African batik clothes, toys, to all kinds of t-shirts and shoes, leather items, handicrafts such as crochet, jewels, paintings, bags, cushions and dolls' dresses. The prices were very reasonable and the alleys were so crammed you could hardly move. I saw original, pretty things like crochet jewels, handmade clothes for Barbie dolls and beautiful, light, pastel-coloured tunics.
In the nearby town (San Benedetto del Tronto) there were also street artists who performed in the evening. We thoroughly enjoyed the puppet show by Teodor Borisov, with very complex marionettes that could move even fingers, pick up a cup and write using a brush. The magic was in the masterful way he moved them, creating characters and stories to colour with your imagination. My favourite piece was Vento (wind): actually three belly dancers made with pieces of wood and white gauze, gracefully moving their lower parts attached with a sort of spring to the rest of the body.
At home, during the hottest hours, we watched cartoons and the news: Libyan rebels, the ups and downs of the Stock Market and London burning. It was likely that they showed the same building on fire each time, but it worried us, even though we live far from London. In the newspapers the riots were described at first as an understandable rebellion against the unjust killing of a black man by the police and the consequences of unemployment and cuts on benefits and social supports in the poorest areas of the English capital. But then it became clear that the revolt was becoming a pretext to break, crash, steal and ‘have fun’, a ‘shopping riot’. The rioters were described as belonging to all ethnic groups and social classes (except aristocracy, I suppose), most of them very young, pushed by an insane wish to grab whatever they could, destroy, assault, maybe without a clear plan of what to do with the stolen items, only for the sake of it. It was a way to vent frustration, anger, escape from ordinary life, have real excitement, not the fake one of video games and theme park rides. It was a way to live a real adventure, as crazy as it may seem: no ideals or political programs behind it. The political parties condemned it in unison. The rioters were not protagonists, only outcomes of our careless society.
One of the articles I read underlined the fact that bookshops were not looted, an interesting point. Who cares about books? Well, maybe it would have been the only place I had gone...if I had had the chance J.
I also went on reading from the short story collections I had with me, including How to breathe underwater by Julie Orringer. I loved reading short stories because they gave me the time to end, or almost end, one before I had to stop to cook or take care of Valentina, or fall asleep at night exhausted. I definitely preferred them to a long thick novel, difficult to follow if you are often interrupted as happens to me all the time. Julie Orringer’s brilliant stories have something creepy, mysterious, unexpected, sometimes hopelessly ruthless, going on in apparently ordinary lives. We need only to have a closer look to find it out. Awfully entertaining and enjoyable, though. She is a true story teller.
On 10th August (the traditional night of shooting stars) we scanned the sky but didn’t spot one small shooting star. No time for wishes and hopes this year.
Towards the end of our holiday
After a week at the seaside, which I greatly enjoyed, we had a few days at my parents-in-law’s little village as usual. Finally my youngest son had a good time, as he met some friends, and we all enjoyed delicious homemade food.
The square at the entrance of the village was as dull and grey as ever. A faded Italian flag hung from a window, a shabby reminder of the hundred and fifty years' celebration of the Unity of Italy.
I found the weather unbearably hot (even though we were in the mountains, a thousand metres above sea level). It was almost impossible to go out and have a walk during the day. Besides, my husband had a high temperature so I was stuck at home with him most of the time. The alternative was to have a walk in the scorching sun with Valentina. I can’t say I enjoyed myself, though my parents-in-law did what they could to make our life easy.
To kill time, I kept on with my readings of Italian magazines and newspapers. A few articles puzzled me, especially the analysis of the widespread economic (and political) crisis bouncing from Europe to US. Looking for possible scapegoats (banks, speculators, politicians), most of the articles agreed that the global economic crisis originated from a political crisis. They identify it in a lack of leadership and in the harsh fights between Democrats and Republicans in the US government, and in the political fragmentation of the European governments. All say that China did much better instead. The unanimous conclusion is that democracy itself is at a critical stage. Is autocracy a better alternative? they ask.
How it is possible to think such a crazy thing! I strongly believe in democracy and couldn’t imagine living in an autocratic country. Should we forget all the restrictions, low salaries, the long working hours that Chinese people are subject to? Could any European accept this? We have a very different mentality and come from a very different history, and are less numerous. Finally their high level of production is based on the fact that Europe and US buy their low price products and sell them at higher prices in our markets. It has been working in this way for a very long time, since Marco Polo (1254-1324), the Republic of Venice and even earlier. When Christopher Columbus left on his journey he wanted to discover the shortest way to the East, which was the source of precious products and huge profits for European merchants. What Chinese people seemed to have learned better than us is to save their money and make less demands. This may be good teaching as the crisis pushes us towards a sober kind of life.
An intriguing article by Warren Buffet (the third richest person in the world) made me aware that not all rich people are careless about how the rest of the world copes. He complains that he pays only 17% of his income to the government while his employees pay an average of 36%. He says that in the past tax rates for rich people were higher and he is sure that a lot of well-off American people would be happy to pay more taxes and help their country. How generous and fair. Am I dreaming?
The analysis of the Italian crisis was rather depressing. According to the articles I read, the main problem is Italian political instability, which makes the country untrustworthy. The attachment to the family and to the home town or village is more of a handicap than a help. The consequence is a closed society, where family ties are more important than merit, and citizens don’t feel any link with the State, considered an enemy instead of a common body or a guide to respect and trust. Besides, in the past people were still capable of sacrifices because they hoped for future benefits, but now the future looks unclear and unpredictable.
To complete my short story readings I tackled the last collection, Everything ravaged, everything burned by Wells Tower. I must say it was the most challenging of the three. First of all the language, new, unexpected, striking. Then each story grows spontaneously, always leading into an unexplored land, new but believable. Absolutely fantastic. Reading it was a greatly entertaining experience.
Besides reading, I met a few relatives. My husband’s grandmothers were a bit weaker than last year and, one of them, more and more affected by dementia. It is clear she suffers from amnesia (she couldn’t recognize me and the children) and is obsessed about keys, locking doors, farm animals she kept fifty years ago. A Romanian lady takes care of her night and day.
I also improved my handmade pasta and ravioli and am practising at home to prepare more recipes to post in this blog. The secret is in practising and practising and to be passionate about it. My husband says I am getting better and he is the food authority of the family.
Finally we went back to Rome for three days, which were the hottest of the whole holiday. The children met their friends and we had one more evening out altogether. Mosquitoes attacked us day and night: the air was so sticky you could sweat just staying still. I longed to go back to England.
My mother cried the morning we left; she looked even more defenceless and childlike than ever. All in all I was definitely enthusiastic about this holiday. We had fun, a good rest, saw new places, enjoyed the children, and they had a good time as well. Could I ask for more?
But it was still great to be going back to England.