Comfort Zones

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I’ve never really been one to stay in my comfort zone for too long: though people’s attitude to me has varied between ‘what the hell are you doing that for – are you an idiot?’ and ‘good for you’.  Funny, isn’t it – how people’s reactions to the things we do can be so diametrically opposed.  Just confirms that you have to do what your own heart/ head/ senses/ conscience tell you to do, not what other people think you should do, as some people will think you are right and some – probably, if it was analyzed, about 50% – will think you are wrong.

I can’t remember the first time I stepped outside my comfort zone and did something someone thought I shouldn’t, but I do remember my father saying something along the lines of daughters doing incomprehensible, rash things like switching to degree courses in subjects such as music.  I also remember a musical friend saying with surprise, about one of my music essays, “you sounded as if you knew what you were talking about – even though I knew you had no idea what a diminished 9th was” (actually, I might have known what a diminished 9th was – I probably looked it up purely for the purposes of the essay).

Later on of course I went for a safe-ish option and became a chartered surveyor.  At that point the unemployment rate for surveyors was very low, although to become chartered as a non-cognate graduate and as a woman (shock, horror – ‘they’ didn’t even approve of women wearing trousers to work when I began my surveying career in 1986!) was more unusual.  Someone from one of the long-established West End firms wrote in response to my job request, that they might have a job going managing their fleet cars – and that they (he) thought that often it was best if people ‘stuck to their own last’.

That sort of comment was, of course, guaranteed to make me stick to becoming a chartered surveyor rather than giving up – as with the guy who I had worked with previously who said what on earth made me think I’d stick to it when I’d stuck to nothing else work-wise up until then… what made me stick to it was that I had something to prove, not only to other people but also to myself.

After about 8 years in surveying I’d had enough however and decided to chuck it all in and go to work as a holiday rep., firstly in France (where I would have liked to have stayed) and then in Norway.  My father said “You’re not to give up a well-paid secure job to become a holiday rep.”.  Did I take any notice?  I had no mortgage, no children… and left a job paying £30,000 pa for one paying about £3,000 pa.  I had a great time and have seen bits of rural France that I shall probably never see again – and I could also speak fluent French when I got back.  My French is no longer fluent, but it gave me a confidence in speaking it which I think probably also helped with, later on, learning Italian.

I fell into a comfort zone after that though – my career progressed; I bought a flat; I earned (compared to my mortgage) a lot of money.  Then I met David, settled down, had children, moved to Cumbria… life was steady.

Or was it?  Don’t you think Life has a way of surprising you?  I am well aware that it really cannot be planned for – some things you wish for do indeed happen, but the effects of them are never quite what you expect and there are all the other things which happen which you didn’t even dream of (or the things you wished for happen, but turn out then to follow a different path from the one you’d expected or hoped for).

So there I was, plodding along, doing a job, taking redundancy as I hated the job and assumed I would just walk into another one as I always had… and I ended up pregnant, aged 48/49.  The creative side of me, which had been somewhat under wraps since graduating, had started rearing its head as well: I was singing and writing and started doing more of both.  The baby arrived, and provided a huge amount of joy and a fair amount of media interest.

Then my husband left.  After a few months of adjusting to it and having unexpectedly inherited a bit of money, I found I wanted to spread my wings and enjoy my new-found freedom and my 45% child-free time.   About a year later I got a job as a surveyor again, having thought I’d never go back to it, and had the most passionate and intense love affair of my life, with a guy who tapped right into the essence of me – the creative, free me which had been trying to escape the comfort zone for so long.

And now… after the pain (I still miss him); the acceptance (my kids have to come first) and the realisation (I am a creative person, and a people person)… I am about to step out of my comfort zone again.  I have a new job as a part-time chef, and am about to start a catering course in September.  Because of time restraints it is unlikely, come September, that I shall work as a surveyor again – after 30-odd years in the profession.

But, as I said in my college interview, I have 12 to 15 years of working life left.  I want, and intend, them to be enjoyable and (therefore) successful.  On an emotional level it feels as if I’m doing the right thing; on a practical level it also makes sense as there is far more demand for chefs than there is for surveyors and I have experience (e.g. in management and also in promotion) which is transferable.  I may go ‘backwards’ initially (in terms of starting again at the bottom, having to retrain, and not earning much) but it’s in order to go forwards more.  And the opportunities and openings are enormous – I wanted to live and work in France but didn’t manage it – becoming a chef my only restraint to where I work is my children.  There’s also a whole history to how I got to this stage, but it’s not necessarily relevant: suffice to say that when a friend suggested I get a job as a chef I mulled it over and eventually realised that she was talking a lot of sense and picking up on something which had been within me for a while.

She also suggested I start a supper club, so that’s exactly what I’ve done, with the profit going to charity.  If you feel like ‘sharing’ this and encouraging friends who live in or who are visiting Cumbria to come along, it would be great if you could – I would love to get really booked up.  And guess what… my new website also has a blog!

Visit: Brampton Supper Club

(and on Facebook: Facebook page for Brampton Supper Club)

Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties

– Erich Fromm

flowers for courage

Obscure jewels

The great thing about Cumbria is that you can find almost unknown treasures just off the
beaten track.  Sometimes you wonder how they survive; others seem to be thriving
despite not being anywhere obvious, nor well-signposted.

1. Brampton to Longtown (7)An example is the delightful little museum at Bewcastle – out in the middle of wild, almost-unvisited, haunted Reiver country.  It doesn’t take long to look around, but it tells the story of Bewcastle for those lone visitors who trek up to this remote part of north Cumbria.

 

Today we went to Threlkeld Mining Museum, which sits within the Lake District National Park just outside sometimes-crowded (relatively speaking) Keswick.  It represents one of the contradictions of the Lake District, even of Cumbria itself: this now idyllically rural county once made its wealth from industry, the landscape being gouged to free various valuable minerals.  Copper, lead, slate, graphite and even coal have been taken from the fells, valleys and coast that sheep now roam over and walkers ramble across.

Threlkeld Mining Museum appears not much more than a collection of rusty excavators in a quarry at first glance, but spending some time there is rewarding.  There’s a short ride on a narrow gauge steam train which takes you up to a quarry which is still worked – perhaps recently most significantly to help repair the road past Thirlmere (Keswick to Ambleside) which collapsed when the side of Hevellyn suffered a major landslip in the floods of December 2015 – and a tour of the old mine workings.  The guides are informative and enthusiastic and you come away with an enhanced understanding of how unsafe and unhealthy conditions were working underground – children carrying large tubs of excretia away at the ends of shifts; pit ponies and men falling down shafts, to be left at the bottom to rot; poisonous lead; children laying explosives, made from goose quills filled with powder, at close range because they were more expendable than adults… the social history is fascinating and humbling.

The Museum has no flash modern cafe facilities but during the gap between our train ride and our underground tour, one of the Museum staff pointed us in the direction of the cafe in Threlkeld village (the excellent Village Coffee Shop).  This was another ‘find’.  The village is bypassed by the A66 but if you bother to turn off the main road and head into the village there is a sign for a cafe.   This is situated in a beautifully refurbished village hall with superb views across to the quarry and the fells beyond.  It’s a community enterprise project (I can’t remember the exact name) so the cafe is run by paid members of staff but any profit it makes is ploughed back into the community.  It’s no amateur tea-room either: the coffee was lovely, the cakes looked superb, and the toilets were clean and nicely decorated with fresh flowers.

And friends I Threlkeld Mining Museum April 2017 (1)worked with at British Waterways may be amused to see that one of BW’s rusty excavators now lives at the Mining Museum!

 

Almost a Final Farewell

“take the road less travelled and simply open your eyes” – Laurence Shelley

icarus

The end of a year makes most of us consider all sorts of things: what we have achieved in the past year; what we have learnt; how next year will be different; how this year compares with those that have gone before.  As we approach 2017 I am looking in to setting up my own business, continue to try to promote my singing and writing, and am also trying to get extra work.  More importantly I am in a different place emotionally (calmer, happier and more accepting) to where I was this time last year or even a few months ago.  I have become aware that I just can’t do everything: and blogging is one thing which may need to take a back seat.  I don’t feel at the moment as if I can add anything useful or enlightening and I am conscious that I have started repeating myself.  It feels as if this blog has now come to a natural end (unlike in Febuary, when I thought of finishing but actually was only at the beginning of an emotional journey).

I started blogging in April 2010 with UnemployedinCumbria on Blogspot.  It was intended to be a blog about getting a new job in a rural county which has a small, low-density, population and not much of a commercial property market (I’m a Chartered Surveyor by profession) – though I also wanted to change career.  I had more of a career change than I expected as I found to my surprise that I was pregnant with a third child – at age 48.  The blog ended up being about being pregnant in my late 40s, having a baby at age 49, and having no job and therefore a much-reduced household income.  We had also moved into a house which needed a bit of TLC so there are bits about my coming to terms with sorting out the garden as well – the children still remember my poisoning the fish in an attempt to rid the pond of algae…!

Once child no. 3 was lustily here I began to think about doing triathlon again, and started a blog which was meant to be more or less a training diary – Supervet-Sarah.  As this second blog developed I stopped the other, but the aim of once again competing regularly in triathlon and at ‘supervet’ (50+) age still hasn’t been achieved.  However it did track my training for Kielder Marathon at age 51 including various micro-adventurous training runs I did with Kerry, who also did Kielder, and during that time I did Kendal sprint triathlon – though very badly (I was slow on the swim and fell off my bike: First Triathlon in How Long? ). That blog ends rather abruptly in August 2014, shortly before David left.  The final words of the final post are “I’m very proud of my little girl” – something I need reminding of from time to time as she’s also very feisty and wilful so I frequently get cross with her, sometimes quite unfairly.

In early 2015 I started this blog.  There’s a hiatus between David leaving at the end of August 2014 and the start – a time when I adjusted to being ‘young (at heart) free and single’ again and to being without the children every other weekend.  By the end of the year I had come to the conclusion that 2014 was the year of broken things – my marriage, my washing machine and my dishwasher but on a less frivolous note sad ‘broken’ things happened to a lot of people.  They always do but I guess it’s how the year has been for you overall that remains in your memory.

By contrast 2015 was then a year of freedom, joy and passion.  I relished my new-found freedom and realised who I truly was.  By the middle of the year I was on a high – I got a new job; fell deeply and whole-heartedly in love with a man who had fallen passionately in love with me; and my singing seemed to be flying too: I had more confidence and performed solo more than I had previously, including arranging concerts for my group Eight + 1.  I flew high – but like Icarus I perhaps flew too high – too close to the sun – and like Icarus I crashed.

Unlike Icarus I had plenty of people to catch me before I hit the ground, and to support me, but it led to a challenging time and made 2016 a challenging year.  It has also been a year of farewells – obviously the usual round of celebrities have died, including David Bowie and Alan Rickman – but also people who were briefly part of my everyday life have moved – Chris who worked at Capernaum and left to join the navy; my lovely neighbours Margaret & David, who moved to Cornwall; and – sadly – Capernaum restaurant itself, which was one of my favourite restaurants ever – the children still judge food by ‘the Capernaum scale’ with few restaurants beating it.  It was also farewell to my friend Clare’s husband, Bob.  He had suffered from severe COPD for several years but hung on strongly for so long.  I am incredibly glad that Deborah and I went to sing Songs for Bob at their house in April, accompanied by Martin Johnson; I am sad that I missed the funeral; and I shall always appreciate the fact that he called me ‘Pocket Venus’.  Clare and her family at times have had more faith in me than I have had in myself.

At the same time however there were plenty of hellos and I got to do some travelling in a minor way, which is something I love and hadn’t done for ages.  I was pretty reclusive for the first part of the year, barely even going into the town centre where I live in case I bumped into anyone I knew and most of the time feeling desperate to run away abroad and ‘hide’.  Six months ago (June), just as I was finally coming out of my depression, I wrote “I want to learn Italian; do lots of long bike rides and write them up; travel; sing; write… and of course there has to be time for my surveying work, which is what, after all, pays the bills.  And I want to fit in some time for trail running out on those lovely hills or along by the sea; for yoga; and for meditation.”  I have in fact managed, to a greater or lesser extent, to do all those things.

As I look forward to 2017 I hope to travel more (I still have a yen to go abroad to do some voluntary work, but it’s difficult with children and needing to earn money to pay for things for them); to write (I need to finish my long bike ride and write it up); to sing (there are four gigs coming up for Bellissima and we now have our own Facebook page as well); to run and cycle; and to earn enough money, ideally doing things I love (fingers crossed for the job I have applied for, but for keeping doing surveying as well, as I have a great boss and I don’t want to let him down) and to perhaps start my own business.  And, of course, to spend time with my kids – if I can earn enough then I want to be able to take the whole of August off to spend it with them – my dream is to tour Northumbria in a camper van.  But who knows what the new year will hold – I learnt long ago that you can’t plan your life.  Things you want do happen, but rarely in the way you expect.

I learnt a lot of lessons in 2016.  One was about being true to myself, which I already knew I should do but which, I learnt, means that sometimes I need to swim against the pack and follow my instincts and my heart despite what anybody else says (I’ve done so in the past and proved people wrong… and if you don’t try then you never know, do you?).  Another lesson, again which I already knew but which was reiterated, was that there are different outlooks on life and none is right or wrong.  David and I separated; we are happier separated but we still get on.  For us – and for our children – that works, but it’s not the solution for everybody and not everybody can manage to be as amicable as we (mostly) are (we had an argument today – he came round to make peace, we had a chat and he gave me a brief hug.  We no longer love each other but we can at least get on and not use the children as emotional blackmail against each other – which I  hope is best for the children too.  I guess he’s sort of a friend – which is what he was before we got together so there’s a sense of resolution in still being at least on friendly terms).

Finally, I learnt that I can’t do everything.  Emotionally, physically, mentally or even in terms of time.  I have had to accept that Child Tax Credits may need to bolster my income if I want to spend enough time with my children as well as, importantly, allowing the creative side of me some outlet; I also have to accept that there are just not enough hours in the day to do everything I want to do.  I tried to do it all: to be a mother (teacher, taxi service, cook, housekeeper, gardener…), a writer, a singer, a lover, to keep fit, to work full-time and to commute, and it didn’t work.  2016 as much as anything has been about getting some balance back.  I’ve even said ‘no’ to some things – I didn’t sing with choir this term and I’m not going to be touring with them in May (I can’t afford to but more importantly I don’t want to go abroad without the children).  I have learnt over the past few years though that allowing the creative side of me some outlet is hugely important: it’s a fundamental part of who I am.  It’s not about being self-gratifying however but about how you can make it fit into a life where you have to provide for your children and do the washing up as well.

This blog has been great for getting my head straight and I hope I will look back at my posts and still enjoy reading them.  People have criticised me, mostly when they have felt criticised by me, but writing has always been a type of therapy for me.  Perhaps it shouldn’t be so public (though the maximum number of readers I have had for any post has been 210, which really isn’t that many) but if just one person has felt better because of a post I have written – if just one person has thought ‘yes, that’s how I feel too’ – then this blog has not been in vain.

From time to time there may perhaps be another, but for now this, my 99th post in this blog, is a farewell – with best wishes for the New Year to you all.

butterfly-in-hand

Club la Santa, Lanzarote

This is just a brief post with plenty of pictures as a short memento of a fantastic holiday.  ‘Thank you’ to my friend Penny, who was an easy travelling companion, and to my Mum who gave me a generous enough cheque for my birthday that I could afford to go back to Club la Santa for the FOURTH time (I hardly ever go back to exactly the same place twice – there are too many other interesting places to explore, but I always have a fab. time at Club la Santa).  It had been refurbished and extended since I last went and is now really nice and modern – and the showers are fantastic!

We flew out of the UK on a day when there was snow on the ground.  The weather on Lanzarote was not perfect all week – it was very windy for cycling – and we even wore jeans (rather than dresses/skirts) some evenings, and fleeces – but it was as good as many a British summer and great to be outdoors exercising almost all day every day.  We agreed we should try something new every day so in addition to running, swimming and cycling we did:

paddle boarding; a fitness class on paddle boards; deep water aqua; Zumba; aerial relaxation; aerial pilates (and, in my case, aerial yoga as well); TRX; body balance; body attack; body combat, Taiji Qigong… etc.

By bike we cycled:

to the Fire Mountains (the visitor centre en route is great – and free – and I love the way it’s still so hot underfoot in the mountains themselves that dry brushwood will catch fire);

past Playa de Fumara, up to the Monumento al Campesino and then along a very bumpy road through La Geria to then head back down from Tinajo to Club la Santa;

and up through Soo, Munique and Tiagua to Nazaret and a house that once belonged to Omar Shariff – Lag-Omar – but which is now a fascinating ‘museum’ come party venue (I think the guy trying to sell me some Aloe Vera products was also trying to chat me up… telling me that Aloe Vera would make me sexy and that I’d come back in two weeks and want to kiss him… hmm…).

I especially liked the way that many of the roads had ‘watch out for cyclists’ signs – I think it was only on the route of the Lanzarote Ironman, but shows how popular the island is for cyclists.  At 856 sq km there’s only really one ironman route available – as a comparison, Cumbria covers 6,768 sq km: but has a total of c.400,000 people to Lanzarote’s 139,000. Both of course have their populations boosted significantly by tourists – something which the Lanzarotians seem to welcome: they were all incredibly friendly and seemed delighted if you even spoke a couple of words in hesitating Spanish.

I’ve mentioned restaurants in a separate post. We were a bit disappointed by the ones at Club la Santa, other than La Plaza in the square (where we were served by a cute English waiter who was a bit of an Orlando Bloom look alike).  Restaurant Atlantico is great for enormous quantities of food; El Lago was disappointing for what it seemed to be trying to achieve, although they make a lovely gin and tonic.  Talking of gins and tonics, the Welsh barman in the Sports Bar was a bit of a gin expert and took ages creating two masterly gin and tonics – he likes Martin Miller, which is one I had come across, bought and particularly liked when I had a dinner party recently.

So it was a week of lovely weather and fresh air, exercise as well as relaxation, food and drink.  It was good for the mind and soul as well as the body, and I was a little sad to come home.  One day I would love to take the kids there, as I’m sure they’d enjoy it too.

Restaurants

I haven’t had much money for eating out this year – it’s been a difficult year emotionally and financially, although both have improved as time has gone on.  Unfortunately with the latter, as soon as I think things are improving they seem to go pear-shaped again – the latest being an unexpected tax bill which has arisen not through my error but due to HMRC’s ineptitude with my PAYE… that having been said, I have no doubt they will still want me to pay it (bang goes the lump sum from one of my pensions, which was going to pay for some house repairs and garden maintenance).

Still, despite that I have been on some brilliant trips this year and therefore eaten out in some fantastic places.  There isn’t really any one restaurant which stands out in Italy – all the food is so fantastic, and as everybody says, the ice cream is out of this world.  But I’ve mentioned The Bridge restaurant in St Asaph, North Wales and Bella and I enjoyed Carluccio’s in London.

Then in Lanzarote recently a friend and I came across what is possibly one of the best restaurants I have ever eaten in in my entire life: Alma tapas & + (Alma tapas y mas) in La Santa village on the north west coast of the island.  We’d been a bit disappointed with most of the food on-site at Club la Santa and had tried the restaurant Verde Mar in la Santa village one evening – which was good, as was The Plaza within the Club la Santa complex itself.  We had decided we’d go back to the Verde Mar and so walked into la Santa village on the penultimate night of the holiday.  For some reason when we got there we thought we’d look to see what other restaurants there were – Penny had spotted a tapas bar one day when we’d been cycling through, though neither of us was particularly keen to have tapas.  We spotted the restaurant and liked the decor and the look of the menu… and headed in.

Alma tapas & + is a tapas bar during the day and a fully fledged restaurant at night – and Wow is it some restaurant.  The service was excellent with friendly, good-natured staff who seemed to be happy in their jobs and who were attentive without being intrusive but who were quick to respond when customers wanted something – they even seemed to like my attempts to speak Spanish, which as usual I got muddled up with Italian.  The freshly baked bread rolls were not made in house but were local, and were served warmed up with the local ‘mojos’ – a green and an orangey sauce/dip which we had been served each evening that we’d ordered bread and which are delicious (I’m just not totally sure what’s in them!).

Our main courses that day were Lamb for me and Fillet Steak for Penny – despite the fact that both of us tend to eat fish rather than red meat.  Both dishes were beautifully presented, cooked perfectly and served with a delicious selection of ‘al dente’ vegetables.  For dessert I chose a hazelnut mousse with a crispy coffee base and I think, from memory, also a layer of dark chocolate.  It was incredibly light and foamy and absolutely fantastic (and I don’t normally go for desserts).  Then, just as we were about to pay and to leave, we were offered a liqueur on the house – as they didn’t have any limoncello they offered us a grapefruit-based liqueur which again was delicious, partly as it had a lovely sharpness to it as well as the sweetness of a liqueur.

The meal was so fantastic that we opted to go there again on the final night.  This time we both had a starter as well as the bread and mojos and I ordered the Thai lobster bisque which had tempted me the day before.  This was a light, spicy soup served with some pieces of lobster, which is something I haven’t eaten since I last ate it in Capernaum bistro over a year ago, but which I love (I first tried lobster in Greece, where you could pick your lobster out of a tank where it was swimming around…).  The blend of flavours worked perfectly and I adored the fact that it wasn’t a creamy, cloying soup.

As Penny had sung the praises of the fillet steak so highly the evening before I was torn between tuna and steak, and in the end opted for the steak.  It was really melt in the mouth stuff, and later when the Brazilian owner came round she told us how they ensure it remains so succulent and soft.  Despite being full by then it was difficult to resist having a dessert, and this time it was an airy, foamy mango mousse with a white chocolate ‘cream’ beneath it.  I seem to remember the creamy base was made with yoghurt so again it was not too sweet and was of a heavenly lightness.  Desserts that light and foamy seem just to slip down as if they have no calories at all!

Despite being far busier on this second evening the service was again excellent, and we left feeling a little sad that we hadn’t discovered this superb restaurant sooner.  But I hope very much that it prospers and continues to excel.  You can be sure that next time I’m on Lanzarote I know exactly where I am going to eat.  I’m just sorry that despite taking my camera with me, I completely forgot to take any photos as I was enjoying my food so much!  You can see some of their creations on their Facebook page though – click here.

Time with the kids

views-from-mama-cakes-new-location-6I’ve had some fab. times with the kids recently, and the beauty of where we live has been emphasised to me once again.  When I think that back in the early spring I thought I might lose them all together… it’s not that we don’t have a lot of shouting and turmoil (Bella still tells me she hates me from time to time), but I’m now confident that I am who I am and that being me doesn’t make me a bad mother.  I’m their mother, and whatever I give them will be exactly that – something I give them, which nobody else can.  I may be volatile, emotional, frequently broke, money-wise (and therefore stressed) and – as they once said in a card to me – ‘the shouty fairy’, but I’m their Mum and I’m Me.  My way of dealing with life is not the same as their Dad’s, nor as some other people’s parents, but it doesn’t matter – it’s my way.  Some people will be similar to me – some won’t – and there’s not a right way nor a wrong way.

Over half term we went out and about: I know I’ve said it before here but the weather really has been fantastic recently.  We walked to Lanercost via the Ridge and Quarry Beck woods – my ex father in law picked up the boys from Lanercost but Bella and I walked back again; we went to Edinburgh and met up with my parents and went in the place that’s similar to the Puzzling Place; we went to Acorn Bank = spot the photo which is similar to one from when Edward was only two! – which was fantastic (and followed it with Rheged, where we had an argument but resolved it with ice creams).

More recently I’ve had a long weekend in London with Bella: thanks I have to admit to my generous parents, who paid for us to stay with them at the Regents Park Marriott, which was fab. (it has a Carluccio’s as a dining room and such, such fantastic and friendly service).  It was great to cover old stamping grounds and exciting for both my daughter and me.

I haven’t had much time for writing recently so I’m just including a whole load of photos.  It perhaps says something for my mental and emotional state that I haven’t written much – writing for me is a release in times of emotional turbulence (not always very appropriately, but it’s what helps me – I perhaps just need to remember not to be too public) – and generally (other than HMRC, grrrrr….) things have been pretty good recently.

Which reminds me that I must get on with some professional writing…

Italy

Why is it that the British love Italy, especially Tuscany, so much?  Is it that the Italians appear, on the surface at least, so different to us – so much more openly emotional and less straight-laced?  Whatever the reason, for centuries now the British have been flocking to and falling in love with Italy, and I am not in the slightest bit ashamed to say I am one of them.

I’d been to Italy once before – to Chiavari, on the Ligurian coast, for a triathlon training week.  We had cycled up into the hills, cycled to Portofino and, most notably, arisen early every morning to go swimming (there was at least one day when I didn’t).  I had always wanted to go back again and I also have a long-held ambition of learning Italian (on my bucket list is the desire to do another degree, French and Italian joint honours).  This ambition started at University when I had done Italian at evening classes for a bit and been offered a month’s funded placement in Perugia to learn Italian, that for one reason and another never transpired.  Having been intermittently learning Italian by CD in the car, now seemed the time to do something about it instead of just dreaming about it.  So I went along to Cafe Lingo at Tullie House and was recommended a particular Italian teacher   Patrizia Guasti, a.k.a. Italy Uncovered.

As luck would have it, when I emailed her to ask which classes she taught and what level I might be, she suggested I go to Italy for a week to have lessons out there with her.  Perfect – and the itinerary of trips she proposed looked great too.

So September 12th saw me at Leeds-Bradford airport waiting for a flight to Pisa and feeling a bit nervous.  Part of me wondered what on earth I was doing – leaving the kids for a week; flying off on my own to meet complete strangers; spending money I didn’t really have.  The other part of me was excited.

Arriving in Italy

I was seated next to a Doctor on the aeroplane, who was flying out with his wife to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary and her 50th birthday.  We got chatting, discussing the world which was lying below us like a map, and where hardly a cloud obscured the view of the English Channel, Lake Geneva, the Alps… On landing my excitement rose.  There was that Mediterranean feel around us, which I haven’t experienced for several years, but which I love: the heat, the sun, the cicadas, the smell, the colours.

I was staying at Isola, which is on the plain between Pisa and Florence, not far off the ‘Fi-Pi-Li’ auroroute.  One of the first things we did was visit the supermarket at Empoli, a modern and typically bland structure, but somehow Mediterranean supermarkets always manage to be better than those at home.  Do the French and Italians really have better food or do we just think they do?  It certainly always seems to taste better, but then wine often tastes better in its country of origin than at home – how many times have you bought a bottle you liked abroad, only to be really disappointed in it at home?

Lessons began the following morning and the pattern for most of the week was set with a 3-3.5 hour lesson each morning followed by a trip out somewhere for the afternoon and evening.  Having originally thought that I was being a bit extravagant splashing out on this holiday, I rapidly realised that I had got a real bargain.  How many holidays offer you accommodation, 1:1 or 1:2 language lessons, trips out and about and a knowledgeable local ‘tour guide’?  I felt like a privileged guest rather than a holiday maker.

13th-sept-san-miniato-1The nearest medieval town was San Miniato, so that was where we headed on the Tuesday afternoon.  There’s a lift from the car park up to the Old Town, and we then climbed up the steps of a tower to look at the view.  This is where the Slow Food Movement started but also I loved the sculptured head with the coin for transporting you across the Styx in the afterlife, and the plaque mounted on the tower which states that the children believed that the only hope for life was in love (la sola speranza della vita resta l’amore).

Paragliding and Lucca

Wednesday was my birthday and after the morning’s lesson we headed off, with my teacher’s 80-year-old father, to go paragliding in the hills just outside Lucca.  I hadn’t paraglided since I was in New Zealand in 1994 but I remembered loving it, so I hoped I would this time too.  As we climbed higher and higher into the hills I wondered whether this was something I really wanted to do: it looked like a long way down.  As I held on to the parachute prior to take off the wind grabbed it and nearly lifted me, which made me realise how strong it was.  As soon as we took off I loved the whole sensation; when the instructor did some acrobatic spins I felt the g-force but had a broad grin on my face.  It was expensive, but definitely something I want to do more of!

Lucca had a festival on which meant a lot of market stalls selling rubbish (and some selling decent stuff), but we found our way through the crowds to arrive in the main square of the old town.  It was gorgeous.  The old walls still exist, with a wide walkway on top which was being used in the evening sunlight for walking, running or just sauntering, and the main square isn’t actually a square but an oval shape.  It was built on the old Roman amphitheatre and so is, not surprisingly, called La Piazza dell’Anfiteatro.  As it was still warm and sunny we sat in a cafe and watched the world going by.

Village, town, city

If I had thought Lucca was lovely, I was about to have my mind blown away.  The following day, Thursday, there was no lesson but instead we set out in the morning to travel to Certaldo.  We walked towards the Palazzo Pretorio and as we got nearer could hear singing.  It was only recorded, but added atmosphere to an already atmospheric building, with its contrasting accommodation of a women’s prison with no light, court rooms and then rooms for the wealthy, and then modern artworks alongside all the history.  Boccaccio died in this village, where you can visit his house; pilgrims walking from Canterbury to Rome still pass through.

15th-sept-2-montereggioni-2From Certaldo we progressed to Monteriggioni, stopping outside the town to get a photo of its perfect ancient walls and then having lunch and admiring more views once we were inside.  It’s one of the locations for a video game, Assassin’s Creed, and whilst I couldn’t find anything for Alex in the shop, I bought a green wood bow and arrow set for Edward.  It really was how you might imagine, or draw, a medieval town.

The next stop was in Siena.  We parked in the more modern part of the city and walked through the city walls into the old centre.  Here cars seemed to be limited as cyclists and pedestrians meandered up the middle of the streets, moving to one side when a motor vehicle could be heard.  The streets were old and narrow, the buildings seeming high because of the limited width.  Colourful flags hung from some; and round every corner, as with so much, it seems, of Italy, something beautiful would be seen.

We rounded a corner and there, suddenly, was the gorgeous Duomo, its facade like a wedding cake and its black and white marble stunning in the sun.  To the rear, at the top of the steps which drop down to the Piazza del Campo, a violinist was playing.  I did the tour of the roof space, gaining a bird’s eye view of the highly decorated floor of the Duomo, and we then went up the tower which forms part of the originally proposed extension to the Duomo, which was never completed.  Wandering around Siena was fantastic, with a ‘wow’ factor at every corner.  Small wonder that I took loads of photos, and that we all voted to go back there again for dinner a couple of days later.

Florence in the rain

The following day the two of us who were students were sent off by train from Empoli to Florence, to fend for ourselves and with a list of items we had to find, ideally by asking directions in Italian.  We were so proud of ourselves when we got it right and Italians spoke back to us in Italian!  In one shop I managed to explain what I needed in terms of a t-shirt for my son; we found the lucky pig; and we sheltered from the suddenly torrential rain in a ridiculously expensive cafe.

The day after we headed in a southerly direction again, this time visiting San Gimignano en route to Siena.  More towers to climb, more fantastic views to admire, more ice cream to eat: my appetite has been whetted to learn far more about the history of this area as well as about the regional foods.

Wine tasting

On the final day the lesson started later than normal and we then went out into the hills of chianti country for a wine-tasting.  This wasn’t like wine tastings I have been to at home, where you get a small taster glass of lots of wines; here it was a generous measure of the vineyard’s rose, red and superior red wine and then the vin santo, all accompanied by local food.  The proprietess explained the entire wine-making process to us in detail in Italian, which was great: I didn’t understand it all by any means but understood enough to appreciate how much I had learnt in a week.  And a couple of glasses of wine gave me the confidence to speak more Italian as well!

We then returned to have dinner at the restaurant we had gone to on my first day, before packing for return flights the following morning.  I hadn’t seen the leaning tower of Pisa, been in the Uffizi, or visited the thermal baths to the south of Siena… but I had seen so much and could have spent many more hours sitting sipping espressos and wine in Piazzas and watching the world going by.

It’s a stunning country with beauty around every corner, a musical language and delicious food and drink, as well as a warmer climate than the UK.  Small wonder so many of us fall in love with it and contemplate living there.  I hope one day – before too long – I’ll return.