Tag Archives: Italy

You have reached your destination

So I have this reputation, let’s say, as someone who’s efficient. I can do stuff. I’m capable and sensible.

It’s all a sham.

Someone capable and sensible and efficient would not find themselves driving the same 15km stretch of road FOUR times in an hour – yes, that’s twice in one direction and twice in the other direction – because they trusted technology over just flippin’ looking at a map before they left, would they? Especially not when the technology had already proved itself to be somewhat untrustworthy.

And yet, in spite of my failings, I managed to get myself to Italy and back, to find where I was going, to catch my flights as scheduled, check into my hotels as planned, and not leave anything behind.

I did somehow forget to pack deodorant, but that’s what the supermercato is for.

Most of my hilarious travel stories involve how the satnav sent me the wrong way, and those stories don’t really have much of a shelf life so I’m not sure how many of them I should trot out now. The rest of the time … well, I spent three days travelling for 48 hours of fun, and it was well worth it.

There was this other time, though, which I will illustrate with some diagrams I drew in my notebook on the flight home, the better to remember.

Quite often in dreams I have a stressful situation where I’m driving but I can’t keep my eyes open, or I can’t see properly, or I’m somehow hampered by having to drive from the back seat or the passenger seat, or I can’t operate the pedals. And sometimes I end up precariously dangling over precipices or teetering on the edge of canyons in vehicles. All fairly standard stuff. I never actually die, though sometimes I damage the car and am always relieved on waking to remember I didn’t.

So there I was on Friday afternoon, after a lovely lunch with my sister-in-law and her friend, and I had to find my way back to the main road I’d come off, for the last half hour or so of my journey to the wedding venue. Of course, I should just have turned around and gone back the way I’d come, but instead I thought I’d give the sat nav a try. I turned it on and programmed in the name of the town I was going to. It seemed to recognise it, so I set it down and started driving, anticpating the soothing voice of the nice lady who would tell me which way to turn. The nice lady spoke up, but in Italian. I wasn’t expecting that, because the on-screen instructions had been in English, but I gamely decided I could try. I know my sinistra from my destra.

She said something I didn’t quite understand. I decided maybe it was “Go straight on” so I went straight on. She said it again and I couldn’t help thinking it was more likely “Turn around when you can”, so with a bad grace I turned around and went back the way I’d come. Then she had me turn right, and left, and right again, and soon we were deep in the zigzags of the little town. Clearly, on paper this was the most direct route to wherever she thought I needed to be, but the map did not take into account the elevation. The map looked like this:

But if you could have seen the elevation, it was more like this:

Straight up one side of the hill, around in a big sweep to where I could admire the lovely view over the lake – that’s nice, I thought vaguely, not looking, as I gripped the steering wheel gamely and forged ahead down an increasingly narrow road – and down again, via some hairpin bends on roads that were not wide enough for my modest rental car (a Ford Fiesta; but a Fiat 500 would have been ideal here) to make the turn in one go.

And so it was that I found myself in a dreamscape, but not the good sort. I came slowly halfway around a hairpin bend and stopped, facing directly into a foot-high wall that offered scant protection from the sheer drop to the road below on the other side. In front of me was, once again, the beautiful vista of the lake. Once again I was not really appreciating it. “I’ve dreamed this,” I said out loud, with just an edge of hysteria. The challenge, I could tell, because I’m SMRT that way, was that this time I didn’t have the option of floating gently to the ground, or waking up, so I just had to pull the handbrake, push the gearstick firmly into reverse, rev until I felt the catch, and back up a bit. Reverse hillstarts, with an option of Death, in a rental car I mustn’t scratch, I thought: my favourite thing. Then forward, then back, lather rinse repeat, until the car was facing the right way. And on down, effing and blinding at the nice insane Italian lady in the sat nav who I would never listen to again.

Not, at least, until two days later when she disgorged me onto the wrong motorway, in the wrong direction, 200 km from the programmed endpoint, and blithely commented – in English, because I fixed that – “You have reached your destination. Please turn around.”

Here’s a nice picture of the lake in question. I took it from the bottom of the hill, not the top.

Obnoxiousness

I don’t want to sound obnoxious, but I’m having lunch with my sister-in-law on Friday.
What? Not obnoxious yet? How about this: I live in the US, she lives in Ireland, and we’re having lunch in a little town on the banks of Lake Trasimeno in central Italy.

A little obnoxious, am I right? Sorry.

This trip is basically the antithesis of the one I took to Dublin in June. That was unexpected, last-minute, stressful, filled with tricky decisions and hard work. This one has been long planned and long looked forward to. It will involve a certain amount of being-a-grownup – driving from Bologna to Perugia on my own, for instance (and back), but also the fun parts of being a grown up – staying up late, dancing, drinking wine, meeting old friends in new places. (Lunch with my SIL is actually a bonus. I’m really going for my oldest and bestest friend’s wedding.)

Yes, I am hella lucky that I can flit over to Europe twice in one summer. Though long flights and long airport layovers are not entirely my idea of fun, they are much easier (though perhaps more boring) without children who need to be fed and entertained. I get back on Monday, so I’ll probably spend longer in transit than the two days the wedding will take up, but them’s the breaks. I’ll muddle through.

Anyway, I just wanted to let you know that I have a nice new phone and will be Instagramming my trip, so if you haven’t followed me over there, now might be a good time. Pictures of Frankfurt airport and scenic Tuscany/Umbria, plus lots of delicious food, to come. I’m @AwfullyChipper over there, same as on Twitter. (Hint hint.)

I’m leaving the kids in the capable hands of their father (and vice versa), and have stocked up on everything they might possibly run out of – pasta, sandwich bread, peanut butter, cat food, cat litter, goldfish crackers, ice pops… I’m sure they’ll be fine. I’ll miss them terribly.

Helper cat

 

Five years in the making

Did I say that would be the last of the Italy posts? Oh well, I lied.

I had to show you these, that’s the thing. Because what’s the point of planning a photo for five years if you can’t then make the most of it? (Okay, fine, that’s an exaggeration. But these comparison shots are five years in the making, one way or the other.)

Mabel looking out the same window as a baby and a 5yo.

See, this is Mabel looking out the window (ah, the window; you can climb out that window and you’re on ground level outside, so it’s a great source of entertainment, possibly the best thing about all of Italy) in 2009, at the tender age of 9 months, when she was pulling up and cruising but not walking yet, and therefore ripe for taking a header off the sofa she was standing on; and then again this summer, now that she’s a great hulking 5 years and 9 months old.

Children looking over a wallAnd this is Dash and his cousin looking over the walls at the top of the steps to the town hall in 2009 when Dash was 3 and his cousin was 9; followed by Dash at 8 and Mabel at 5 in the exact same place. (Different camera angle, slightly. My bad. And Dash apparently is standing a step down.)

Children on a see-sawFinally, we have the same 9-year-old cousin and 3-year-old Dash on a see-saw five years ago, and then 8-year-old Dash and 5-year-old Mabel in the same place this summer. They may have repainted the duckies in the interim, but I can’t tell for sure.

 

Italia

red tiled roofs

Walls of shades of yellow and orange, ochre and umber. Dark green shutters always, the colour of the solemn tall trees. Light grey stone, dark grey cobbles scattered with cigarette butts. Prosecco before dinner watching the passeggiata.IMG_8880

Lizards skittering as I walk. Giant flakes peeling off slate paths. Dark, heavy wooden doors and windows that swing wide. Orange-tiled roofs, rippled, stacked, layer over layer on the hillside. Fountains. Passing cone-shaped peaks and looking down to straight Roman roads along the valleys.

Narrow street

The local shop with price stickers and no barcode scanners and a deli counter to die for, where you have to test your Italian to ask for a vague quantity of salami and cheese and prosciutto. Basta cosi. A real butcher’s counter with hunks of meat where the butcher can tell you if the pig was a boy or a girl. He probably knows its name and what it ate for breakfast. Thin dark leaves in among the peaches that still have this morning’s dew on them.

IMG_8822

Olive groves and fields of girasoles. Fragrant lavender shortbread just out of the oven and geranium petals swimming delicately in pool water.

Path through olive trees to the lake

How can I tell which moments I’ll remember? Which moments my children will remember? What makes a memory? Is a photograph a memory-keeper, or does it change the memory to something else, something easier but not so real? Does it steal the soul of the memory? What can I do but write it and look at it and hope I lived it when it happened?

Carp in fountain

 

Worth it

We’re back. All the things that were annoying me so much before we left are still here – the messy toys, the demanding children (oh yeah, they were with us the whole way), the incessant need to go grocery shopping and make dinner – but I feel happier about them now. I pressed the reset button, apparently, and I’m ready to pick it all up again with new vigour. (Just as soon as we’re over the jet lag.)

I can do hard things. I know that a family trip to Italy isn’t exactly a hardship, but it’s a change from the ordinary and it does involve challenges. It’s so easy to twirl myself up inside my little life until I’m just peeking out over the keyboard and feeling like anything further is a huge imposition; and to keep my children to their good regular bedtimes and their unstrict house rules and not push it, ever.

But if you shake things up you find that you can do it, and they can do it. They’ve spread their wings and challenged their assumptions and gained confidence and knowledge; and we’ll all get over the messed up sleeping patterns and the three-a-day Nutella sandwich habit and we’ll be stronger for it. And I can drive twisty Italian streets at night and I can make a stab at a conversation with an Italian stranger who doesn’t speak English, and I can stand in a city on the other side of the world with my family and know we made it there and we’ll make it home again.

And everything will look brighter because of it.

Don’t ever let me catch you skipping a vacation because it sounds too much like hard work. You can do hard things.

Dash brandishing wooden sword

(Even without a sword.)

Italy 2: Everyone has an off day

I realise it sounds horribly privileged and snotty to announce that I was in a bad mood while in Italy – and Tuscany at that, not one of those lesser Italy parts like Rome or Turin – but there you have it, everyone has off days. Yesterday I was in such a fouler we should just have embraced it and gone to Siena.

Siena, I should explain, is a most beautiful town and I’ve been there twice in my life, both times in rotten form for no apparent reason. (I recently had a conversation with Marian Keyes about this on Twitter, which will probably the claim to fame I’d like on my epitaph. She too had a bad day in Siena.) Possibly it’s that Siena occurs at exactly that midpoint in a holiday when everyone could really do with being magically transported home to their ordinary lives just for a few dull hours, free from the pressure of all the things they should be doing and seeing and admiring that begin to weigh you down when you admit that your time here will come to an end and you haven’t yet done any of them. The stress of the stunning, overwhelming beauty and history at every pace gets to you after a while. Maybe Siena is just too much of a good thing, or maybe it was always just doomed before we got there.

The first time, we even found ourselves serendipitously there on the one day of the year when the “Paleo” occurs, which is not a feast of non-feasting – that other sort of paleo hadn’t even been invented when I went to Siena first or second – but rather a huge special festival with re-creations of horse races with people in traditional garb toting actual enormous wooden lances and all sorts. I didn’t care. I didn’t like it. There were too many people, it was too hot, and I’d have been better off sulking on my bed for the afternoon.

Yesterday, we bucked the trend and did not go to Siena. We went instead to the more local lake, and the afternoon was redeemed by the perfectly timed catching of the ferry to the island where we had ice creams and wandered in the olive groves spotting pheasants in the undergrowth and watching the old ladies sitting out in the shaded streets doing their intricate lacework until it was time for the ferry back again.

Path through olive trees to the lake

Sometimes a dark room is balm for the soul, but sometimes you have to get up and take the kids somewhere anyway, and an overgrown island in the middle of Italy followed by some trampoline time does as well as anything else.

Dash upside down on a trampoleneMabel on a trampolene

Italy Report I (assuming that there will be more before we leave, which may or may not transpire)


The wonderful thing about going on holidays in a place you’ve been to before and you’ll probably be again, whether it’s Dungarvan or Duck or Clermant-Ferrand, is that there’s not really any pressure to do stuff. You don’t absolutely have to see all the sights and visit all the visitor attractions because you’ve probably seen them already or else you’ll no doubt see them the next time.

This takes a lot of the pressure off when it turns out nobody got up till 10am again and the kids are now unwilling to be extracted from the pool because of course they only ever start playing with the other children ten minutes before you were going to go out. So you crack open another paperback and turn over on your sun lounger and say “Oh well” and “Do we have any salami and cheese for lunch or should I wander over to the shop?” and then you just stay there contemplating where the sunscreen has gone and that you should probably reapply it to someone, somewhere.

(If you’re in Dungarvan, the sunscreen comment may not apply. But then, sunny southeast, you know. Playground of the gods and all that.)

My little proto-feminist is swinging on the swing chair singing at the top of her lungs “Girls are the best. Girls are princesses and boys have to do everything we say. You can eat their brains…”

The seven-year-old from Dublin just told Dash that “In my country, hardly anyone likes peanuts.” I called him out on this, since I am definitely sure that not everyone in Ireland dislikes peanuts, but he maintains that none of his friends do.

Dash asked me when we could come back to Italy. Our holiday isn’t even halfway over but he seems to have embraced the European lifestyle.

“I don’t know.”
“Can we come next summer?”
“No. It’s too expensive to fly here from America. If we lived in Ireland we probably could.”
“Let’s move to Ireland, then.”

Yesterday we had a classic Grumpy Waiter Experience. I had thought that such things only happened in France, but apparently there’s an Italian strain too. We sat in a lovely outdoor restaurant with a breathtaking view and cloth napkins. The cloth napkins should have immediately alerted me to the fact that this was Too Posh For My Children, but I wasn’t paying attention.

Breathtaking view over fields to Lago Maggiore

Mabel decided not to sit at the table but posted herself in a grump on the step. Since we were the only customers on the terraza, I was fine with that. But the waiter, on coming out and seeing this, decided this was his chance to show off his excellent English and, well, I don’t know – bond with the parents by laying down the law or bond with the child by being amusingly stern – one of those things. It did not come out as either, though. He asked us her name and then called her over to her place, saying she had to sit down. Mabel was unimpressed. So was I, because he wasn’t coming across as either friendly or amusing, and all she was doing was sitting on a step in a bad mood, and in nobody’s way.

There were no pizzas on the menu. There were no breadsticks on the table. When I asked about breadsticks I was told in no uncertain terms that they did not have any. When we asked about apple juice (the kid drink of choice around here) we were told that they don’t have apple juice because other establishments have apple juice. We ordered an orange juice for Mabel and nothing for Dash.

The following things happened:

  • The waiter misheard B’s order for something else beginning with C and brought him a caprese salad. When we said this, he accused B of saying Caprese. He did not apologise for bringing the wrong thing and seemed ready to get into a fistfight over who was right but grudgingly said he’d bring the other thing.
  • The orange juice was red. It looked like Campari to me but it tasted good to Mabel so that was fine. When I tasted it, it was basically Robinsons/KoolAid.
  • I asked for plain pasta for Mabel, with just oil. It came with a dusting of parmesan on top, which of course we did not want. When I Very Politely and with my best Customer Smile said that we needed it to have nothing but a little oil, our waiter went into Defensive Mode immediately and explained to me that in Italy, all pasta comes with cheese. Yes, but I asked for just oil. Please could we have some with no cheese? Just a little?
  • When her pasta finally came out, long after her father’s replacement lunch finally came out, of course she refused to taste it. History does not record the waiter’s reaction to this entirely predictable eventuality.
  • I took the children down the road to the small cafe where the people were friendly and they had a packet of crisps/chips each for lunch, followed by a large Cornetto ice cream. The other members of our party followed at their leisure and everyone was much happier.

Children with huge ice creams

Then we found a giant church on the hilltop where the body of Santa Margharita was right there on the altar (putting St Katharine of Siena’s finger, which I saw many years ago, not to mention Oliver Plunkett’s heart, well in the ha’penny place), and explored a fort that may or may not have been built by the Medicis.

Such is Italy. That’s enough sightseeing for now.

Laundry day

It’s laundry day!

But the best sort of laundry day; the day when I wash everything so that I can pack tomorrow. As time goes on, I’m starting to think that packing might actually be the best part of the holiday. All that unalloyed optimism, untainted by the reality of being away from home with children.

I know I should be laughing by now, because my children are not babies or toddlers, so I will get some time to relax. The last time we went to Italy, Dash was 3 and Mabel was 9 months and teething and miserable and totally loved on and adorable but it was still relentless for me, the most-loved and wanted One With The Boobs. I couldn’t comfort her, but she wouldn’t be with anyone else. And it was always dinner time, when the extended family was sitting in the warm dusk, enjoying delicious food and wine, when I had to walk the sad baby ceaselessly.

At least I got out of the washing up duties, I suppose. There’ll be more of that this year.

This year there’ll be more child politics, more negotiating friendships and trying to put people to bed before things go so far south that someone gets hurt; which with the added hurdle of a five-hour time difference for us could take quite a while… There’ll be more swimming for everyone, more difficulty finding things to eat, more joyous playing with cousins, more mosquito bites, probably. More entertainment, more screaming. I might get to read a book or two; I might be driven insane.

A change is as good as a rest. Keep telling yourself that.

So cute! Dash in Italy. Chocolate milk all over his t-shirt, as I recall.

So cute! Dash in Italy. Chocolate milk all over his t-shirt, as I recall.

9 month old Mabel

Teeny Mabel last time.