I knew that this week I would have to go out for groceries and thought I’d go on Tuesday, 14 days since the last expedition but when Tuesday dawned it was with howling winds and plummeting temperatures, and, when I dragged myself out from under the duvet I bought in London and never used because it was too hot, I saw snow on the ground. So I said to myself, it can wait: my fridge is still full even if I am sick of the repertoire.
Later in the day, around 5.15 I learned that petrol stations were going to be closed because they carried too much of a risk of spreading this dreadful virus, so I clamoured into my boots, threw a coat and scarf on, donned the only mask I have (thank you Corin) and grabbed a pile of latex gloves and my shopping bags.
Oh, and my Self Declarazione. This is a MUST. I cannot go anywhere outside my property without it or I run the risk of being heavily fined. Trouble is the government issues a new one practically every day and I can’t keep up. I’m low on printer’s ink so not bothered to print each one out to see where they differ…I read they add a raft of new questions each day. Pretty soon they’ll want to know when we last had sex. And I couldn’t answer that one.
I head to the town 3 kilometres down the hill from my hideaway and I feel the freedom of being out. It’s like wagging school, only better because there will be new goodies to eat at the end of it. But there are also new concerns as two people in this town have been tested positive. I am glad there are no polizia on the bridge to stop me as I want to be there and home as quickly as I can. I slow down through the deserted town. The only sign of life is the green flashing cross at the pharmacy. There is no one at the petrol pump. I don my first pair of latex gloves, grab fifty Euros from my wallet and say a silent prayer. I am hopeless at self-serve petrol. I always screw it up and today is no exception. I put the money in the slot, indicate pump No 1 and put the nozzle into my almost empty tank, now gasping to be refilled. Nothing happens. A car draws up behind me and I ask the man to help but he says no, and stays away. Eventually after invoking the diesel gods in good language and in bad I hear a splutter and slowly the dial on the pump turns and the magic elixir spurts forth. That done, I throw the gloves into the bin and head for the supermarket.
Not usually good at rules, I am delighted my fellow Garfagnanians are adhering to the 2-meter rule…except they are actually at least three metres away from one another. I open my purse to find no coins for the trolley and curse at the state of being that money is needed to access one. One person comes out and another goes in. I wait. I am number 3 and a woman comes out to her car parked where I am waiting. I tell her I have no coin and ask her for her trolley and she says no. It’s a fucking euro I think, you lousy sod. Later, when I borrow a coin from the check-out lady, I discover that a fifty cent coin is sufficient and I wonder about that karma of that woman.
I’d written up my list like a virtual tour of the supermarket so I didn’t have to backtrack and, waiting in that extended queue, I realised I had left it at home. I cursed under my breath and remembered a funny outing I’d had to the supermarket in London with Hugo where, when we got to the till, he laid out everything in alphabetical order: Apples, Bread, Carrots and so on, and I had a laugh to myself. Fewer full shelves than last time, and again, not a carrot or celery stick to be had. I’ve never liked carrots but it’s hard to make a good minestrone without them. The Nonnas must have got in first again.
Then I think of the Nonnas and the Nonnos who have died. Thousands
of them. The backbone of the traditional Italian family; the kitchen and the
hearth will never be the same. The storytelling and the cuddling of new-born
babies. And I stop myself brushing a tear from my eye because I do not want to
touch my face.
I get what I can and am delighted there is smoked salmon and tonic water. My predilection with gin is possibly mine alone. I buy loo paper and tissues and find they are not in short supply here. Finally, I hand over my card, thank the woman very much for all she is doing, possibly not clearly through my mask but I hope she got my gratitude, and I flee, removing my tainted gloves and putting them in a special bag in my boot.
It’s interesting. Years of learning and years of being a therapist, I am convinced that how we do one thing is how we do everything. I remember in the late 60’s when I was travelling (oops that’s almost a NEW word) in Afghanistan and we found ourselves enjoying a night or three with Afghani Gold, the best hash in the world. For those of us who were on a natural high we laughed and hooted and had a great time. For those miserable or anxious it heightened that state and they were even more miserable or tearful than they had been. So now we are seeing things as if through a puff of Afghani Gold again…. If we’re anxious, we’ll become paranoid. If we are unconsciously driven by scarcity, that will manifest itself big time. And if we are naturally kind and caring, we will be more so.
I’ve seen friends do amazing things in this time. My dearest young things Emily and Adam, instead of cancelling their long-planned cross-continent wedding, stood in a windy paddock in NSW two days ago with a minister, under a metal canopy that Adam had welded together the day before, with their parents watching from afar. As I said to her a couple of days before when she was uncertain what to do, Em, that’s a truly wonderful story and example to set for your kids in the future. I wish I could be there with you, and I’m definitely coming to the party in Wales when it happens.
What I’m also experiencing is an amazing amount of caring. Remember that round of Facebook posts, ‘only 25% of my friends are seeing my posts so if I do this more of you will see’? What codswallop. Everyone sees our posts; it’s just that most people don’t comment or don’t like/dislike or whatever.
Knowing I’m alone in Italy, the worst affected country (well until yesterday when the USA took over) I have had hundreds of people in some way acknowledging my posts, some of whom I haven’t heard from in a decade. It’s been marvellous and I feel so touched by the generosity and care they have shown. Thank you one and all. In my #splendidisolation that is not always so splendid I have been touched by your concern. And I’ve laughed day and night at the silly, clever stuff that has been posted. How I/we could have managed without the technology we have with free calls and round the clock and round the world connection I have no idea. Not well, I suspect and I am grateful that we don’t have to.
I am grateful, truly grateful for a bunch of other stuff
too. I am grateful for my Sunday bread, baked next door and delivered by Anna,
last week with 5 delicious Sicilian oranges she’d waited weeks to be
delivered. I’m grateful to live in a
house with lots of rooms so I can have variety if I need to. For all my books,
my DVD’s, my plentiful cellar, the absolutely delicious aroma from my first
coffee of the day and for my view.
When we looked for a house 34 years ago the one non-negotiable was a view and boy, am I grateful for that now. For when I look out, at the snow-capped hills and myriad villages scattered down the valley I see new life and I feel hope. Italy has been at the pinnacle of this terrible virus yet I continue to be amazed at its spirit. I have grown to love its National Anthem, it stirs me more than any other I have known and it has brought me to tears often in these challenging days.
I’ve watched as the world has made its own decisions. I’ve been horrified at the beach scenes in Australia and at the PM not acting anywhere near as quickly as Jacinda across the pond. His name has gone from SCOMO to SLOMO. I hope, now that Boris has been tested positive, he might get serious and the ‘I’m ok mate’ Aussies learn to stay at home. My son and my family and friends are in Oz and I want them to get through this safely. Even though I live in an isolated community and in otherwise pristine hills, the only place I feel really safe is at home. And I’ll stay there for as long as it takes.
More soon my friends. Stay home and stay safe. And never
lose your SOH.
DAY #16 IN LOCKDOWN
March 19, 2020
I am halfway through Day 16 in #CoronaCentral. I have #iostoacasa – not left home now for 8 days and since I have plenty of food that will probably extend another 5 until Tuesday.
There are things that have changed. This morning when I reached for my phone it would not recognise my face….. it was my hair, all wonky after a week of not caring much; not making those sorts of things matter. I put my head under the tap to ruffle up those curls again and still it will not recognise me. Yes, things have certainly changed.
Lots of other things have changed. The world is a different place since my last blog only a few days ago. Britain has shut down. Australia has shut down, but not its schools. America; I can’t bear to watch that idiot so I’m not authoritative on their news except that my beloved Italy has sent them half a million ventilators overnight. New Zealand has closed its borders.
In Italy I saw a picture of a street last night in the northern town of Bergamo filled with Army trucks removing dead bodies. Two priests have been charged under the new Decreto because they conducted funeral services. I have seen video footage of a hospital in Cremona; the IC unit with a dozen or more bodies lying motionless, face down on beds, attached to ventilators. It’s clearly warm in there because they are only covered by a towel around their middle bits. Let me say, they are not old bodies. I couldn’t see a single one that looked like a Nonna or a Nonno. And over 2600 Italian medics are infected – far worse than it was in China.
Last night in Bergamo, Northern Italy
I read that the European Central Bank has launched a surprise Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme of EUR 750 billion until the Covid-19 emergency has receded. As well they are considering a Covid-19 bond to support European countries: an unprecedented and significant measure to help sustain European economies in this crisis. And I think of the smug Brexiteers who will miss out on the strength and collaboration of a greater Europe.
I’m mostly in fine fettle.
My days don’t have a great deal of variety but I try to do something
different to change the routine. Today I
moved my computer from the sitting room beside the fireplace to the dining
room. Big deal you say. Yes, it is a big deal. It gives me a
different horizon and a bigger glimmer of hope as I look outside to the world
and see the sunshine on the villages below me where people are stuck at home,
many way more fearful or compromised than me.
Yesterday I felt a bit crappy to be honest and probably not
surprising after 15 days at home and with news that this thing might keep me
here in isolation for another month. Maybe more. I long to go downtown to the
bar and hang out with friends over a vino. And to enjoy paying my €1 for the
pleasure, just to keep money flowing in my own community.
Until then there is humour. Oh my god now I laughed at that guy flooding the internet with his wine glass saying ‘cin chi, thank you for coming’, to himself in a bathroom full of mirrors. I screeched out loud at that genius. Today I find out he is the son of one of my British in Italy mates who banded together to face Brexit and who are now organising on line quiz nights and book clubs and who support each other to the max, sometimes with a couple of hundred messages each day. This guy works for Oxfam and is based in Kurdistan, and he had the humour to make that video? I’m proud to know his dad. What resilience! Kurdistan I ask you…where the fuck? Iraq. He probably hasn’t been safe for ever out there.
25 years ago I was in the front row of a week-long seminar in Maui, Hawaii. It was day one and the presenter, Tony Robbins, the world’s leading peak performance coach, came on stage with the words ‘the quality of your life is in direct proportion to the amount of uncertainty you can comfortably live with’.
As a variety junkie, those words changed my life and gave me freedom to be whom I needed to be without societal judgement. Today they are even more relevant. None of us know how, or when this is going to end. Yesterday I was down because I heard that we may remain in lockdown for another month when I thought it would be lifted by March 25 or, at the latest, April 3. Today my son sends me a message that I should get some chickens as he’s read research from eminent scientists that we may be in social isolation for another year. Chickens I think? I couldn’t kill a chicken. But I definitely need a couple of Burmese puss cats … and I start searching the internet.
The world is not as it was when I left London 16 days ago. London
is not the same: 40 tube stations have closed and 200,000 troops are assembling
to enforce lockdown when it occurs. BoJo seems to change his mind every day
about what needs to happen and I’m jolly glad I’m here in Italy where the
government took harsh measures from Day 1 and is focussed on protecting its
people more than its economy, which itself is in dire straits. That can happen
later. If people die, they cannot be brought back to life after it’s over. Bad enough
that funerals are banned. I find it depressing
every day to get another raft of emails saying they are closed – all my favourite
joints, the Royal Academy, the National Gallery, Colbert and so on, then I realise
what a rich life I’ve had being a regular at these fabulous places. And I will
So how does one stay afloat?
Certainly with resilience. And resourcefulness. And with humour.
The amount of brilliant memes going around on the internet is fantastic. I’m gobsmacked at the creativity of some people. Laughing is so good for us, even if there is no one to hear you (lol). I’m amused by a friend buying pasta in Antigua on her way back to the UK and appalled at the selfishness and repulsive behaviour firstly in Australia, and now in the UK, at supermarkets. But I’m not going there today…either in this blog or literally as I don’t feel like a run-in with the Polizia who are checking ID and the Declarazione that we must carry to leave home.
I read that type A blood people have a greater chance of getting infected and I rush to my wallet to extract my card. O Positive. Phew. Small mercies, yet I believe I am pretty safe in my hills anyway. The night I was diagnosed with breast cancer 21 years ago I lay awake planning my funeral because every single person I knew who’d had it was dead. But I survived that too.
There are signs of spring in my paradiso and this is the second day of 18 degrees although a friend in Sydney who’d been looking at my weather pointed out that snow was predicted next Wednesday! Although the air is still cool, the sun is wonderfully restorative of the spirits and I’ve enjoyed the noise from two of my neighbours who have been heard on their tractors this morning. Thinking ahead to the wonderful vegetables grown up here, I hope to see some ploughed fields soon. I’m soon going to work on preparing my little orto for its veggies, when I can go out to buy some seedlings. Planting may be later than usual this year. But it will happen.
But mostly how I’ve kept ‘up’ in my solitude is you. You, out there, my friends who have been unbelievably diligent and caring in checking in on me, seeing if I’m ok, asking how I am, sending me funny shit to make the metre-thick walls of my prigione move as if an earthquake is coming. But I mustn’t mention that. In a few months it will be 100 years since my entire village was razed to the ground, on 7 September 1920. Life for them then was far worse than it is now, in my opinion. Everything is ‘compared to what?’
This thing will pass. No-one knows when. And we must soldier
on in the unknown. Be kind and considerate to everyone. This is a time when connection
is the most important thing that will get us through these challenging times.
Until next time from my beautiful sunshine and pristine
hills. Stay safe. Laugh a lot. Care a lot. Embrace the unknown and the
unknowable. It’s all we really have.
Baci e un abbraccio
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March 15, 2020
Its day 13 for me in #SplendidIsolation and to say the least, it’s been an interesting time.
An enormous shout out to the hundreds of people who have
enquired after my wellbeing. If anyone tells you social media doesn’t work, or
that your posts are limited to 25 people, don’t believe them. It’s simply not
the truth. I’ve been inundated with wonderful messages of support from the four
corners of the globe. Grazie mille my friends. I so appreciate you.
Only twice have I been past my driveway in these past 13
days – driving out of my village to a supermarket in the next town to buy food;
fresh lovely Sicilian oranges to juice in the mornings, vegetables to bake and
grill, salads to enjoy with almost every meal, firelighters for my fire which I
light when it starts to get chilly, cheese, pancetta and prosciutto and a
solitary bottle of vino. Not a single roll of loo paper. Niente. Nulla.
Nada. My Italian plumbers made much
sense in installing 3 bidets many years ago.
I’ve been shocked by the crazy and selfish gobbling up of
supermarket shelves in Australia and now some parts of the UK. Especially in
Australia. My countrymen and women so wonderfully pulled together for the
greater good in January when such terrible fires ravaged the country and now
they couldn’t give a toss for their neighbour who might be too old or too frail
or too busy getting their kids off to school so they can earn a living to get
to the supermarkets at dawn.
On the other hand, I’ve been in tears a dozen times watching the amazing spirit of the Italians. Whoever thought up the notion of the 6pm, and then the 12 noon ‘get out on your balcony and make music’ ought to get the highest honour this country issues. This is the stuff of heroes in a time of complete lock down. Whether it’s been kids banging pots and pans, or amazing opera singers who we’d pay hundreds of Euros to see at La Scala, or just mum and dad waving the Italian flag, it’s been extraordinary. Tonight, #Flashmob has urged Italians up and down the country to light up their windows at 9pm so we can be seen in space. To hell with the electricity bill, I have a dozen windows facing down my valley and every one of them will be lit up tonight.
I am allowed out to go to the supermarket. To the pharmacy. To the doctor. But if I go out of my Comune (town hall area) then I have to have a Self-Authorised Declaration to show to the polizia or else I could end up with a criminal record. As my Comune has no supermarket, this paper stays in my bag when I venture out. Probably, because I am in a remote village, I can go for a walk as my neighbour does, in the woods but I have so far desisted. If I go in a car, there can only be two people, one front and one back. And in the supermarkets there are lines drawn with tape on the floors marking how far you must be away from the next person.
My daily routine is pretty similar. Sometimes I wake up to a
beautiful dawn, as I did today, sometimes not, as it is still spring and some
days are cold and misty.
I am immensely thankful for my brand new boiler, King
George, which stands proudly beside the luscious red Queen Mary in my cellar,
good for 32 years but who retired from, at least the hot water stakes, at the
end of last year. I have a long hot shower, put on something comfortable and
oil my face with the magic elixir from the Istanbul Spice Market. I can hear my
skin applauding a month of no make-up. Or maybe longer, who knows?
Breakfast is my yummiest treat of the day: freshly squeezed Sicilian oranges, crunchy pancetta, sometimes a rich yellow egg, sometimes mushrooms although they are in short supply at my supermarket, and sometimes fried up veggies from the night before. Toast, from wonderful bread made by my neighbour, with my long black …. if its sunny, on the little Linda Balcony, named after my darling girl Linda Blair who contracted lung cancer and left us almost 2 years ago. I think of her often; her damaged lungs would be a worry at this time, and I feel her sending me love and strength, saying, ‘you’ll be fine darling, I’m glad I didn’t have to go through this.’
The day goes on. I read; I potter in the garden if it’s a nice
day, digging up a few weeds and envisioning my planting when spring really
comes and I can actually shop for baby vegetables; I’ve done the ironing, and I
set the fire to be lit about 4.30 each day.
I’ve spent a large amount of time on social media – too much probably – but there are so many caring people out there and I’ve loved the humour in the face of this crisis. Posts on Tinder of a goofy looking guy surrounded by piles of loo paper as his pull to a bird! Its pure gold! And with my Brits in Italy group who formed to support each other during the Brexit crisis (as indeed it has been for many) and who now connect hour by hour to share experience and wisdom and humour and their personal fears about businesses going under and family illness at home in the UK which they can do nothing about.
I’ve spent time connecting with my generous step daughter in
Oz who, with a heart of gold, is arranging a movement to support her street and
has already put loo paper in the ‘library’ she set up on her fence ages
ago. This is a time when resourcefulness
becomes one’s greatest resource.
My internet based TV is overloaded because of #iostoacasa (I’m staying at home) which
is the official hashtag, and I can’t watch anything. But hey, I have a thousand
books and 400 DVD’s and I can always stare into the fire and contemplate my
good fortune to have chosen this country, which has taken such a strong stance,
in the face of economic disarray for a long time, to protect its citizens: mandatory
with the second oldest population in the world.
So Day 13, and another 10, at least to go. I’ve got 6 flights booked over the next 2 months and wonder if I will take any of them or whether I’ll get my money back. Che sará sará…whatever will be, will be. I worry about the Italian tourist industry in particular. There is nothing I can do but spend, once we can get out again. Perhaps I’ll cancel all those flights and stay at home, here, in my adopted paradiso, spending my Euros where the people I have come to love will benefit most.
It’s a challenging time globally. I read of the situation in
Britain and in Australia especially, where my dearest friends and family are
and wonder how their various policies will work. Or not. It’s a time of fear
for many and we must understand that fear breaks down the immune system and
when, combined with selfishness, becomes the second virus.
Stay well, my friends. This is a game changer. Be sensible
and be positive and connect. Connect with people, ask them how they are, give
what you can and enjoy the peace of being alone. Listen to the birds singing
and the church bells chiming. This too will pass.
From #CoronaCentral #SplendidIsolation #IoStoACasa
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SELF ISOLATION IN PARADISO
March 13, 2020
The new WWW: the World Wide Wakeup
Looking out through my dirty winter-windows at the snow
covered peak on the horizon and green grassy fields beyond my pencil pines, it
is hard to believe that this beautiful country, in which I have chosen to live,
is in lockdown.
Normally at this time of the year my immediate vicinity is
pretty silent, save for the church bells a couple of times a day and maybe my
next door neighbour’s tractor starting up perhaps to start ploughing for the
So in fact it doesn’t feel much different. Until I realise that by law I am only allowed to leave home to go food shopping or to the doctor. And that I am not allowed out of my Comune without a declaration to the polizia, if they stop me.
I haven’t been shopping for a week so this morning, early,
just before 8.30 I took off into the nearest town to hopefully be one of the
first customers at the supermarket. With few cars on the road it felt quite
eerie and I was greeted with shuttered windows instead of clusters of the
locals enjoying the early morning sun with a coffee in their hands.
Notices on shop windows which, even though I could not read
at a distance, I knew were conveying the hurriedly enforced law that people
must be one metre apart, on official looking paper with a crest or two on the
top, and a scrawled but illegible signature on the bottom.
At my supermarket, there were signs of life as masked
workers scurried about trying to fill empty shelves, and huge wooden pallets of
water in blue bottles outside in the sunshine.
I’ve never understood why they sell water at all in my part of
Italy. What comes out of the tap is
delicious, cool and straight from the source; good enough to flow freely
through countless village taps around the valley where locals gather with
crates of empty bottles to fill.
Two large notices on the ‘in’ doors declared that you must
stay out until someone had left, so I stood there, numero uno, in the sunshine wondering how long I would have to
wait. Several people stood behind me,
keeping their distance from one another, some chatting, some silent. No one
wore a mask.
Eventually a customer left and the door was opened for me by
two workers dressed in the chain’s green jackets, offering me hand gel. I
pulled mine from my pocket, telling them I’d just put it on, and wheeled my
Never one for adopting the Italian protocol of wearing gloves
to select one’s fruit and veg, today I headed straight for the pile and put
them on. My problem has never been
wearing them as good practice, but I am hopeless with them, as I was today, not
being able to prise open the plastic bags to put in my produce for starters,
and inevitably sticking the price sticker onto said gloves instead of onto the
I said good morning to the staff and hurriedly went about my
business. Oranges for juicing, lemons
for the gin and tonics, potatoes for the sake of potatoes in case all else
failed, tomatoes as a necessity, onions, a lettuce and a packet of ruccola and
a bunch of green bananas. No sign of any
celery or carrots and I assumed the Nonnas were busy at home making soup, just
as I had wished to do. Blast.
Eggs. Yes. Goodness
there are only 6 packets left. I felt guilty taking two but took them
nevertheless. Butter. Fresh Pasta. Coffee – two double packs and flour, but alas
the wrong one so hope my neighbour continues to supply me with fresh bread as
what I took was for cakes which, to the chagrin of my son, is never my strong
At the deli counter I chose a few local cheeses to keep me
going and a runny Gorgonzola, my all-time favourite, as I asked the girl,
hidden under her hat and mask, for pancetta and bread and focaccia and, of
course, more pesto. I turned round and looked at their wine offerings, gabbing
a bottle of delicious looking Vernaccia from Sardinia, as if I haven’t got
enough booze in my cellar.
By this time, I counted 4 people in the supermarket. Me, a
man still at the fruit and veg and two women at the meat counter. I had intended to get a kilo of minced beef
to vary my pasta offerings, but I forgot in my hurry to get past them and head
for the tonic water. Probably much more important.
Glancing for a final time at my list, I headed for the
detergents, none of which I needed but I did need a stack of firelighters to
help combust my most necessary winter fires. Then to the register where I
chucked everything willy-nilly into my French carry bags, left by a friend some
years ago, and headed into the sunlight and the line of shoppers waiting their
Once the shopping was in my car I returned the trolley,
extracted my one Euro coin and fumbled in my pocket for my bottle of hand gel,
lavishly applying it to my hands until there was so much on I could barely hold
my car keys. Oh well, they probably need a wash too.
Driving home through the town along the empty high street with
closed shops I felt sad. Sad for these people for whom life has been tough for
a long time. Small village and town folk, many elderly, who have long suffered
with the woes of the Italian economy.
And now this.
I didn’t meet a single car as I drove home, passing the
butcher on the corner by the bridge, who was standing outside chatting on his cellulare. Normally there is a queue of
people outside his shop purveying some of the best meat I have ever had. The pasticceria next door was open, but
empty and there had been no sign of life in the main square, with bars and
coffee shops likely to be open but empty.
Back to my paradise. I have been here already for 8 days self-isolating after London for two weeks. Not because I had to, but because it’s winter and my life is quiet here over the cooler months.
I’ve loved those 8 days, and whether I like it or not, I am in for another 21 before the ban is lifted. Maybe by then I’ll be stir crazy or maybe not. Over those 8 days I’ve enjoyed a lot of reading and my stack of unread books still looms high, offering me constant respite from the outside world possibly for a year or two, if you add all the offerings left by my Hugo when he returned to Australia 15 months ago. I’ve been writing; stories from my past, stories that one day I hope he will read, and his children, and get some inspiration from. ‘So Grandma wasn’t such a boring old fart?’ I can hear them say, reading about guns in my ribs and mountains I’d climbed and inspiration I had received from my father.
And all the while I sit here at peace in these beautiful
hills. Green grass. Towering mountains. A fort dating from the 10th
century before me. Neighbours beside and behind me, each in their houses
isolating themselves from this thing that has the world in its grips.
Its time, I think, to slow down. For us all. To enjoy nature. To enjoy the simple things again. To be kinder to ourselves and to the earth. And to be grateful for what we have right now in this moment.
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ARRIVEDERCI SUMMER 2016
September 3, 2016
It is always in my last few days at I Cinghiali that I wake naturally around 5am to witness, through windows flung wide open, the exquisite dawn – first just a pale light then a ribbon of orange or pink lightly kissing the mountain tops across my valley as the late summer sun begins to light up the sky.
But before then I get up in the middle of the night to stand on the tiny balcony off the hallway to witness a sky full of shining stars reminiscent of the suburban Melbourne of my childhood. Sadly pollution now obscures this vision in cities but here it is magnificent and a reminder to me at least, that life comes in all forms and happiness is a constant choice.
My days here are simple and easy. Summer is a pair of flip-flops (my Aussie heritage still calls them thongs but not everyone understands that!), shorts or a floaty dress and rarely any make-up other than a smudge of lipstick when I go out. It’s completely different to my more sophisticated London life and I love it just as much.
Food comes from my garden or a local market and is fresh, fragrant and probably the best on the planet. Certainly the tastes are like no other and the age of the people in my valley and elsewhere in Italy are testament to the quality of the produce. Wine is plentiful and cheap. I can buy the best Sangiovese from further south for around €2 a litre and good bottles are only a few Euros more. It has taken me years to find a good prosecco but now that I have there is always one in my fridge – for lunch or for no reason at all.
It’s been a wonderful and full summer with lots of guests, some here for the second, third or fourth time and some whom I had renewed pleasure in introducing my Garfagnana to for the first time.
Back in our 20’s I lived in Astwood Mews SW7 with my sister and a few girlfriends and much jolity was had in early July when Hilma, Geraldine and Lynne came for a week before three of us headed south to visit Umbria and southern Tuscany.
After my 10 days working at a Tony Robbins event in Spain I was joined by my dear friend Connie from LA via the Netherlands, and Cynthia from LA for some lovely and relaxed times; also with Craigh who had stayed with his partner Tim in the barn for a fortnight and then remained because he too has fallen in love with the Garfagnana.
My dear friend Linda then arrived and we had a wonderful time as we always do, visiting the Versillian Coast on market day at Forte dei Marmi and the local market at Castlenovo between languid days by the pool and lovely siestas.
Two London friends Corin and Laila arrived for their first visit and we had such a week of laghter and fun together – seamlessly sharing meal preparation and pouring of the gin and tonics at sundown. Together we had a marvellous day on the Italian Riviera and an exquisite lunch at Boca di Magra at my friend Mario’s wonderful restaurant set on the bank of the Magra river and surrounded by wonderful statues chosen by Wendy, his Sydney-born wife. And we spent much time relaxing, reading and chatting beside my wonderful pool.
Such fun did we have with the shopping that resulted in a FB competition amongst our friends to ascertain who bought what. All those black dresses and 10 pairs of shoes and they were totally confused! Only one suggested which purchases were mine and it was a girl I’ve never met!!
And there were wonderful occasions with my local friends, as always. Dinners in a winery, dancing in the village square, food fests at la casa mia, the annual street dinner party in my village. And one more somber occasion.
Two weeks ago some beautiful villages in Le Marche and Lazio, far south of me, crumbled under the weight of a massive earthquake, just as my old village did on the morning of 7 September 1920 when many lives were lost also. So tonight there is a village dinner to support the earthquake relief fund and I shall be there with an envelope full of contributions from some wonderful friends around the world who have enjoyed time at I Cinghiali and who admire and respect the resiliance and spirit of the Italian village people throughout this wonderful country.
On Monday I shall depart. I have suspended my car insurance, given two jolly good bottles of red to Claudio who looks after my car wonderfully and packed away some precious things downstairs. I never know when I will be back. In bygone days on my final morning I would stand at the kitchen window, the Venetian coronation playing in the sitting room, and weep silent tears of joy and sadness. Now they are just joy for I am no longer a 24 hour flight away.
For 28 years I have loved everything about my simple life at I Cinghiali. And now it is time again to ramp it up and rejoin the other world I love in London. Arrivederci la bella Italia…mi piace tanto, per sempre.
Ci vediamo presto. E io grido il lunedi.
Until next time
My valley with my villa high on the hill below the church tower.
BREAD AND SUNSHINE IN THE TUSCAN HILLS
August 15, 2016
A week ago late last Friday night I returned to my hills with a vow that never would I leave them again in the summer to go anywhere else.
When you have perfection somewhere in your life it is absolute folly to seek elsewhere for everywhere will be less than. A disappointment, a failure, a travesty.
But I had committed to my sister and another friend from Sydney to travel for a few days in southern Tuscany and Umbria so we set out on the appointed date for Todi, a walled city in the province of Perugia. I’d been before; a number of times years ago when we used it as a stop-off to Rome airport. Then it was lively and interesting. Now it was full of shops covered in ‘affitarsi’ signs – empty and waiting, probably in vain for a new tenant. Our apartment – when we found it – had all aspects of loveliness but on further inspection, not quite. The wi-fi did not work, there was no fan in the bedroom, there were only 2 chairs for the three of us and it was a long way all uphill to town. Nevertheless a wonderful lunch awaited us in the restaurant opposite and we vowed not to complain – me especially. I just wanted to be in my paradiso.
We explored lots of small towns in the area over the next few days, loving Spello and Spoletto where our visit corresponded with the last night of their annual cultural festival so our time was well spent observing the glam (and no so) of the local glitterati as they wobbled off on their high heels down the cobblestones (well the women anyway) to the final concert.
Arezzo was our final stop and it too was lovely if not stifflingly hot but we had a pool which, once we had read the myriad instructions necessary before entering, was indeed lovely and refreshing.
An early start on our final day to deposit me at Pisa airport where I took a plane to London to change and fly off to the opening night of Graeme Murphy’s rendition of Swan Lake with the Australian Ballet. It was utterly brilliant: the best I’d ever seen, poignant and emotionally draining and typical Murphy.
Hugo’s Graduation with a First Class Honours Degree followed the next day and it was a wonderful celebration for his father and I and some of his friends. Afterwards we sipped champagne in the magnificent gardens of Regent’s University London before cocktails at Simpsons in the Strand and a gorgeous dinner at Rules in Covent Garden. Later we all went separate ways and I was happy to be heading to my lovely flat in South Kensington, alone, single and fancy free and proud both of my son’s achievements and my courage to leave a difficult marriage almost a decade ago.
Some frenetic days later I found myself surrounded by oranges and oleanders in sunny, arid Valencia and on my way to the Melia resort in Benidorm to support a 9-day Life and Wealth Mastery event of some 200 participants from around the globe.
Always fun. Dancing. Singing. Coaching. Laughter. Listening. And at the end of the day some fun meals in the best restaurants in town after fighting our way through ‘the great unwashed’ – hundreds of sometimes drunk and always noisy tourists in town. Not my idea of a holiday. Ever.
Back to my peace and tranquility with Connie and to a meal in my barn lovingly prepared by Craigh on his second visit to my piece of heaven. And fresh figs from my laden tree.
To sleep in my own bed and wake up to the pink ribbon of dawn over my hills and the chirping of the swallows darting outside my window was indeed heaven. And I firmed my resolve never again to leave in the summer to go anywhere but the markets or the odd restaurant because I even prefer to eat at home – the simple fare from the best quality produce available in this magnificent country.
A week later and joined by Cynthia we have (separately and individually) acquired some 13 pairs of shoes from my friend Roberta in Castlenuovo, enjoyed several market days, shared drinks on my terrace for the barn guests, entertained friends for a wonderful dinner, spent many hours poolside, read a book or two and enjoyed a wonderful lunch at my favourite La Baita, high in the hills and run by 3 generations now for 43 years.
Today is is stormy and I am very happy for my growing veggie garden. Later I will go and inspect and smell the powerful fragrance of my herbs hiding amongst the aubergines and zucchini, capsicums and artichokes, beetroot, carrots, lettuces and radicchio.
Right now the church bells are telling me it’s noon. Down the valley they will ring in a few minutes from one town, and a few minutes later from another – a reminder that even in these magical hills nothing is perfect.
Until next time
SWAPPING BREXIT RAVAGED LONDON FOR TUSCAN TRANQUILITY
July 2, 2016
My summer exit date was planned to follow the AGM of the Australian Women’s Club London where I completed Year 1 of a two year term but in fact it couldn’t have come at a better time after the devasting result of the Brexit/Remain referendum two days earlier.
Growing up in a politically aware and active household, a couple of years as PA to the Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party in Australia and having worked on a great number of election campaigns with results I either did or did not like but learned to live with, I thought I was immune to results. But on my first time as a UK voter, this proved not to be the case.
I woke at 3am to check an early result – not happy that the Remain voters were only a million more than the Leave. By 6am I had to literally prise my eyes open and with utter dismay and disbelief learned that my age group throughout the country but not London or Scotland or Gibralta had voted their kids and grandkids out of living and working in 27 countries. With my son’s Indefinite Leave to Remain Visa Application to complete the following day in the expectation that he too would have this opportunity, I was beyond gutted.
Two days later I left soggy, unsure and somewhat angry London to head for the hills – my hills – reclaiming the space where 28 years and 5 days earlier I had stood on the crumbling terrace and said ‘if you can’t catch a dream once in a lifetime then why are we here?’
Arriving at Pisa airport I produced my Australian passport to get in; something I have never done before – in the hope of retaining some dignity amongst the Italians, some of whom had already emailed me of ‘il catastrofo’.
Our bags were the first off the carousel and we grabbed them and ran for a taxi, having only 13 minutes to get to the station and leap on the train home. Sadly the self propelled train is still not working …. perhaps another 2 years. Perhaps more. This is Italy. To love it one has to love all of it. Or maybe not?
The train journey up the valley between the Apennines and the Apuan Alps that contain enough marble for millenia of Middle Eastern bathrooms and hotel lobbies is wonderful. The energy of the lush green and beautiful Garfagnana beckons me again as it did all those years ago, and indeed every year especially the last three after every ‘sodding stone’ of I Cinghiali finally became mine.
My dear friend Toty was at the station with my car and an invitation to his house where his wife Caterina had prepared a refreshing drink which I’d taught her to make last year and then up the hill to home sweet home.
Arriving at the barn I looked out of the window and in my mind’s eye I saw the two pictures, one just 2 years ago, and the other, beckoning to me for a long hot summer: I was in paradiso and brexit had already assumed a lower case b.
Later that evening standing on my terrace, no longer crumbling, with glass in hand, a visitor in my own home, guest of His Excellency the Australian High Commissioner to the UK and his wife who were enjoying two weeks in the villa with their family having their own Tuscan dream. A wonderful dinner ensued as we watched the magical sky over the 10th Century Fortress on the hill opposite enchanted by the appearance of some fireflies and I felt utterly blessed that I had a couple of months of the simple life to look forward to.
Six days later my first guest has gone and I have moved into the villa awaiting the arrival of my sister and two friends this evening: friends who lived together in a mews house, a stone’s throw from my London flat, when we were all in our early 20’s. It is utterly peaceful, the whipper-snippers or whatever the English call them having been put down in favour of a Saturday afternoon siesta, but I guess that will not last when the four of us get together.
It has been a lovely 6 days with my friend Kerry staying and to see again friends I have made over the years. I feel privileged to have this place and I love sharing it and its charming village life with friends who come to visit. We enjoyed the local market and drinks with friends on Tuesday followed by a late afternoon drive to lovely Barga with its 17th century church of St Christopher perched on the top of the hill in all its marbled glory. And gelati.
Wednesday we drove to Lucca…still and always a favourite with its 76 churches and its fabulous Roman amphitheatre. Lunching at a favourite, we struck up a conversation with two Melbourne guys who had just purchased an apartment in a town near mine, home to great friends and a strong artistic community and I immediately invited them to lunch and a swim when they return from the south and Venezia.
Thursday took us to Castelnuovo, the principal town of the region and its weekly market. Off to my bank where I learned my account had been frozen – (Brexit already I wondered) but no, only some security issue which required 5 unintelligible pages of printing, in duplicate, to be signed in a dozen places. I love this town and hope the scaffolding on its ancient tower will not take as long as the driverless train from Pisa airport. There was Nadia to visit for shoes (not me this time) and the elegant Sandra for her upmarket dress shop (ditto) and then off on a half hour drive through the hills towards the Versillian Coast for an extraordinary lunch at Ceragetta … about 25 taste sensations including 3 different dishes of pasta, 3 types of meat, an inordinate number of antipasti and numerous other things that, with wine, coffee, water and desserts came to 20 Euros per head. Exhausted we went home to sleep and I to swim.
Friday, Kerry’s last day we entertained my diplomatic friends from the villa and two wonderful artist friends, Shona and Michael, Australians I met 13 years ago when I organised a 3 day Festa around Lucca for the 80th birthday of the matriarch of one of Australia’s First Families. Shona mainly works in bronze, Michael in marble and they both paint. We had a wonderful afternoon of great food and conversation learning of the spring under Australia House in London and other very interesting bits of its history, and inevitably on the eve of an Australian election, politics that seem a million miles away from the tranquility of these hills.
Finally time for a last look out my window and my last night in the barn – 0h now I love that place! And now, another adventure awaits as I pop down to the station at 9.03pm tonight but not before the siesta that has become an absolute must each afternoon.
Until next time
A WINTRY WEEK IN TUSCANY
February 10, 2016
I’d forgotten just how enticing my huge fireplace, roaring with logs from trees that once stood on my ground, is on a cold winter’s day. Or how wonderful it was to know there was a pot of soup on the stove waiting for me to be hungry. And to add to it a slice or two of that foccacia from Piazza al Serchio that seems to stay fresh for a week and a dollop of extra virgin oil. Not to mention the dozens of bottles of red cooling their heels in my cellar which need to be warmed up by the fire before you can pop some into your glass. And I’d forgotten just how good Italian coffee is.
I’d forgotten too how the mist swirls around sometimes hiding the fortress on the next hill completely and at other times so close to the windows I can’t see anything. I was hoping for snow but not too much and that is just what happened on my third night in residence last week….a sprinkling of crunchy white stuff on the ground and covering the windscreen of my car the next morning. It makes everything looks magical and mysterious and I was sorry I had only asked for a little. I wanted more. I wanted the place to be covered as it was a couple of years ago when my neighbour Anna sent me this picture below.
We arrived on Monday after a slight delay at Heathrow, then into a hire car and off to Lucca for a late lunch, or at least a glass of red and a walk around my favourite Italian city. Always elegant, somehow in winter it seems more so; maybe for lack of tourists, and I like it even better if that is possible. The sun was out and the blue sky between the trees in the Piazza Napoleone where we sat was just lovely.
My local town market the following morning was minimal as it always is in winter time but the bar was busy and we caught up with good friends for a white wine and a nice overdue chat. At home we bedded the rhizomes for the ginger lilies whose fragrance I hope will fill the air in the summer, made a big log fire, poured a red and enjoyed one of my favourite films, Bread and Tulips.
On Wednesday we drove up the valley, in the mist and a little rain, around some of the lovely villages north of my villa, stopping at Pieve San Lorenzo to photograph the church which has the most exquisite bells, and for Linda to purchase her very own Bialetti coffee machine in a local shop. Playing around the shores of the lake at Gramolazzo and pretending to fall off the little jetty into the icy cold, we were stunned at the beautiful colour of the water: the greenest we had ever seen…full of minerals and delicious to taste. Lunch was a sensation: no written menu but exquisite home-made pasta and local wine and coffee and a bill of €27 crossed out to €25 for the two of us.
Castlenuovo di Garfagnana, the major town of the area, hosts a Thursday morning market and it is something I go to rain, hail or shine. It’s a tribal affair: men standing and chatting politics, sport and probably women, and women ferreting in the stalls for something for their kitchens or their backs. We did both, then met up with a new friend over a couple of Hugo’s…my normal Thursday noon drink after the market.
Up through the hills on the way to the coast we went to an amazing restaurant, Ceragetta, for lunch. It looks out over the mountains and was humming with activity; almost every table was full when we arrived and we were lucky to get a nice spot for two in the corner. I love this place and the people who own it. We were offered 10 antipasti, 3 different pastas, 3 main courses with salad and chips, a bottle of wine, some sweet wine with dessert and coffee for the amazing cost of €23 each.
On the way home we stopped to walk around the lake at Pontecosi and take pictures of the two bridges – one ancient, one new, at the far end of the lake. A group of young people headed for the tiny old bridge with their guitars for a photo shoot as we watched and the ducks swam by.
Friday and Saturday were spent in Florence – away from the madding crowds of the summer and oh! so much nicer. Whilst we had booked for the Uffizi and the Academia, we didn’t really need to as there were no queues and there was only one other person when we visited the beautiful Brancacci chapel in Oltrano over the Arno. We loved the David, the amazing paintings now over 600 years old in the Uffizi and the modernised food market near San Lorenzo. It was wonderful to see all buildings of the Duomo without scaffolding: something I don’t think I have ever seen before, and it was marvellous to walk down the wonderful roads and alleyways and not be cheek by jowl with a bunch of foreign tourists. Such is the pleasure of visiting in winter!
We ate a beautiful dinner with an exquisite bottle of Sangiovese at another of my favourites, La Fonticine and we stayed in my 3 star find: the clean, with a nice breakfast, 5 minutes off the motorway, 5 minutes from the Duomo, Hotel Palazzo Vecchio at only €66 a double, plus €19 parking. Amazing in this day and age. But this is Italy and its winter.
We meandered home via Ikea for some cushion covers for my new sofas in the barn and some candles for the candelabra, thinking we were going to a dinner party. Sadly the hostess was ill so we lit a roaring fire, opened a bottle of red and had a much earlier dinner which was probably just as nice after our busy tourist time in beautiful Florence.
On our last full day we went down the valley to Il Pozzo, a wonderful member of the Slow Food family of restaurants in Italy and again feasted with more food that is respectable and beautiful wine and paid poco….or little! On the way out past the local soccer field we shuddered at the muddy quagmire and the soaked players in their red and green hopefully enjoying their Sunday afternoon game despite the rain.
And so to our last night. My last night in my bed. My own bed. My house. My home. My Italian dream. I could stare out the window any season for hours on end at the changing weather and vista and feel overjoyed. I have, as have others before and after me. And taken countless pictures of that view. I used to stand at the kitchen window every time I left to weep, if just for a moment. But I don’t do that now. I live in London so its a few hours, not 24 and I can come back whenever I want. How that pleases me!
I hadn’t been in winter since 2001 and I wondered how I would feel about it. It’s fabulous. Wonderful, any time of the year. And I think the heartiness of the food makes winter even more special. The house was warm as toast, the fire roared, the rebollito on the stove was warming to the cockles of your heart and the cold cellar was full of wine just waiting to be opened, warmed a little and drunk in an armchair by the fire.
Until next time: Primavera and planting the veggie garden! And if you’d like to spend some time here in the coming summer please let me know now.
BUON NATALE A TE
December 23, 2015
As I sit here in my London flat after the shortest day and gaze out at the intense blue skies I wonder if this is really Christmas.
But I know it must be: my tree is decorated, gifts awaiting wrapping are stacked on my dining room table and the fridge is already groaning.
In Australia my friends and family are suffering from temperatures in the 40’s and for me, lovely London is amazingly warm around 15.
The world is a crazy place and I have had a crazy year – joyful, full, exciting and utterly peaceful over my summer in Tuscany.
I will be delving into La Toscana for a bit of winter in February and I may just send you a missive from a very different kind of place than you got used to in the summer months.
Thank you for being my faithful audience during the year and I wish you and your loved ones the best of a Merry Christmas and a happy, healthy, prosperous and fun 2016.