Loss, Love, Emotion, Nationality

The Dolomites, last August

The Dolomites, last August

A friend of mine died today.

He had had a good enough innings as they say.  He was in his eighties, I think.  To be honest I never knew his age exactly.  He had seemed timeless.  I hadn’t known him all that long either and as he was Italian and I’m not there as much as I am in the UK, it’s a while since I last saw him.  But something about his irrepressible spirit, love of life and just plain heart on sleeve Italianness had touched my buttoned up English heart.

I have been very lucky in that I feel to have a dual nationality.  I’ve had parallel lives.  I’ve grown up in the UK with a lovely family and great friends.  Then, every summer, we all piled into our car and spent the best part of the summer school holidays in Italy, in the Abruzzo.  Consequently I also have a lovely Italian family to match my English one: the family my parents befriended out there who have known my parents since before I was born and have watched me grow up.  I have great friends there too.  And finally, although it’s taken a decade or so to reconcile, I consider myself not only my own mixture of Cheshire / Scottish / Yorkshire but an honorary Abruzzese too.  I may not have the Italian temperament, but I will always consider it home and when I leave, I take it with me in my heart.

A few years ago, having spent many years fascinated by the nearest peaks of the Appenines to our Abruzzese home, we joined our local section of the Club Alpino Italiano which is where we met Mino.  Mino was one of the founding members of the local section and a passionate mountaineer.  We knew him in his later years when he could no longer scale the highest peaks and when his declining energy levels meant that he was happy just accompanying his wife Giulia on the lower slopes, having given up on the head spinning views for the less elevated pleasures of woodland, alpine flowers and collecting mushrooms.  Some people might regret no longer being able to scale the peaks, but Mino always seemed content.  While he may not have reached the summit, he would glory in telling us of the amazing plate of tagliatelle and funghi porcini he ate while we were punishing our bodies up the mountain.

Over the summer, my Dad broke his elbow quite impressively when the brakes on his bike seized up sending him flying over the handlebars as he tried to gently slow down and ended up crashing to a halt.  What should have been a piece of solid bone on his x ray, looked like a jigsaw puzzle.  He was operated on and healed up but not in time to join the CAI group on their annual away trip which, this year, was to the Dolomites.  Someone had to take my parents place so I manned up and took one for the team.

To say it was magical would be to understate it considerably.  The mountains were beautiful, beyond what I’d seen before – changing subtly as the sun rose and then set.  The colours, the light and shade, the shapes of the rocks all infinitessimally changing every time you looked up.  I took millions of photographs.

I also spent a week with the whole group of Italians that, until then, I had only really spent time on a once a week basis at the most frequent.  Being Italian and perhaps above that, being Abruzzese, they welcomed me in with open arms.  They were surprised that I didn’t talk more.  I am, after all, English by birth and shy by nature, but they soon took that in their stride,, discovering that in one on one situations where I had more time to try and express myself in a language I speak pretty well but which is by no means as fluent as my native one, I could hold my own in conversation.  They joked with me.  The included me in their banter.  They made me feel one of their own.  Yes, there would be the usual curious questions trying to ascertain what it was like to be British: the weather, the Royal family and what do we eat over in God forsaken England where there’s no pasta con fagioli and a nice bicchiere of Montelpulciano d’Abruzzo to wash it down with.  But that’s just a way of expressing interest in where you come from.  At heart there was always the feeling that we had things in common, we were the same underneath that cultural stuff.  I was welcomed.

Mino was one of the jokers of the group.  In his prime he had been a charismatic leader, I could tell.  Now he was the adopted grandfather of the party.  He couldn’t walk up to the highest summits in the Dolomites either but after a longstanding love affair with the area, he certainly wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to visit them again.  He greeted me every morning at breakfast solicitously enquiring if I was enjoying this part of Italy, if I had liked the excursion yesterday, if I was looking forward to today’s excursion.  He joked with me and with the others.  He bantered.  He made it fun.

In Abruzzo they instinctively welcome you.  Until the 1950s they were a region with medieval seeming poverty: children running around in ragged clothes without shoes, food on the table because they kept chickens and rabbits and grew their own vegetables in their market garden or orto.  The only things they might buy in would be flour for bread or pasta.  Everything else; the bottled tomato passata that lasted them through the winter, the dried borlotti beans, the peppers, aubergines and courgettes which were eaten fresh through summer and pickled for the winter, all came from the orto.  And not only do they welcome you, they do so with an almost medieval hospitality.  In an attempt to impress and provide a suitable welcome, you will be invited to a lunch of six or seven courses and at least three types of meat (meat having been, in the past, the most valuable food they could provide for a visitor of course). All of this happens so naturally and without conscious effort that it washes over you like a warm wave of friendliness.  You can’t help but respond with affection.  It’s not like the more restrained friendship that an English person might give.  There is no irony.  There is none of the saying one thing politely but meaning the exact opposite that I actually love the twisted nature of in the English character.  It’s in your face, heart on sleeve and honest.  It’s almost childlike and yet I don’t mean that patronisingly.  And so you respond to it as you would to a child that welcomes you and wants to be your friend.  You love them.

Mino’s best friend at CAI and the founder member of the section, posted on Facebook, the sad news that Mino was now scaling the final and highest summits.  The outpouring of sadness and commiseration was immediate.  In posting their thoughts and best wishes, they didn’t hold back.  None of that English reserve that says

‘Oh I never know what to say at times like this so I’d better not say anything at all.’

They were sad, they would miss him, they were glad to have known him and they just said so.  So I did too.  I mustered my best Italian and the resources of Google translate.  I checked other comments to make sure I was copying their idioms in the hopes of not detracting from what I wanted to say by clumsy use of language and I wrote that I was sad to hear the news, would always have lovely memories of times spent in the mountains with him and that my life was richer for having known him.

After doing a walk (there is one every week in the season from March to October), the CAI group put together a semi film of photographic stills set to music.  It is sometimes appalling Italian ballad music, sometimes strangely inappropriate English music which only demonstrates that they haven’t quite understood the lyrics.  If I were feeling cynical, I could laugh at so much about it: the rather enthusiastic but extremely novice use of either photoshop or powerpoint to put the images together, the emotionally theatrical music,  But it is all done with the intention of communicating a love of the walk, the scenery, the mountains and the enthusiasm they all have.  So once more, you can’t help but respond emotionally, even while your critical and cynical brain notes the idiosyncracies of it. And so, of course, they have put together a film of photos of Mino, to say farewell.  Memories of a good friend, enjoying his life, set to some Italian pop ballad that I’ve never heard before sung by a gravel voiced singer.  The film is honest, unsophisticated, openly emotional and yet also dignified.  It ends, exhorting us all to seize the day: Carpe Diem.  Needless to say it has reduced me to tears every time.

I didn’t know him for very long and I didn’t see him all that often, but I will miss Mino very much, I find and I am truly glad that I knew him.  I have only just realised how much, but he touched my life and made it better in his own small way.

My other Italian friends knew him better and feel this more keenly.  Unlike me, who usually mourns and grieves the loss of someone by bottling it up until it eats away because I don’t understand the emotional response well enough to give vent to it at the right time or even know how to express it, they are wearing their hearts on their sleeves.  They are sad, they know they are and in their emotional eloquence, they are expressing that sadness immediately, openly, honestly and without shame or embarrassment. I can’t help feeling that if I could learn to be a bit more like them, I would be a healthier person.  I hope, perhaps, that being part of their group will give me chance to learn how to do that better in future.

Grazie Mino e Ciao.

Mino & Giulia

(Saying Goodbye the Abruzzese Way).

Lazy Sundays

twin-peaks-coffee

 

Eadmund’s room had french windows at the end of it that lead onto a small balcony on which he had huge terracotta pots full of plants.  In nearly all weathers, we left a window open to let in the cool and surprisingly fresh air from outside, as we slept at night.

Beyond the balcony was one of those hidden gardens like a secret courtyard, that Victorian areas of London reveal only to local residents.  The outsiders see immense white, ornate and elegant homes rising up from the pavement in squares and don’t realise that, behind the stucco facades, lies a tranquil oasis of green grass and trees.  A piece of calm amidst the bustle of the city.

Weekdays were heralded with the ringing of the alarm clock, putting on the radio to let the Today programme slowly seep into our consciousness before it was time to shower, dress and get to work.  Saturdays too were busy.  There was shopping to do, lunch to cook for the kids, errands to run and housework to do.  Cloe worked six days a week.  We tried to make sure that she would come home to a tidy house, a delicious meal and a well-stocked larder and fridge.

Sundays, on the other hand, were a day on which everyone could rest.  Always the early riser, Eadmund would wake first.  We slept touching each other, even if, on the hottest summer days it was only my leg draped over his.  As he woke, he would move closer to me, even half asleep, I moved in to put my arms around him.  Inevitably we would touch, stroke, hold, kiss and make love.  Then he would get up, make cups of tea for everyone in the house and come back to bed to bring me tea and toast.

Tea would be drunk in the quiet of the sleeping house, half asleep myself and nuzzled in his arms as we listened to the radio or music and he made more progress on completing a crossword puzzle.  Dozing though I was, I would still attempt to answer the clues.  Then it would be time to get up, shower and greet the day.  Often the first to come downstairs, we began the ritual of preparing breakfast.  Cutting bananas, mangoes and papaya into chunks, squeezing lime juice over them fruit as it was arranged on an oval platter, skewering the odd piece of fruit with bamboo satay sticks and placing it in pride of place on the table, was the first job.

Next it was time to make toast and plenty of it.  Some would be buttered hot and garnished with Marmite, other pieces in their butter drenched glory would form the base on which the cooked breakfast was served.  Bacon sizzled gently in a cast iron frying pan, slowly caramelising as its fat rendered down and became crisp and golden.  Eggs were beaten with knobs of cold butter which later melted to make the scrambled eggs we made, yieldingly creamy and gloriously rich.  Cherry tomatoes, almost confit-cooked in olive oil, garlic, ginger or galangal and coriander slowly heating to soft, aromatic sweetness.

Orange juice was freshly squeezed and, when she came downstairs, enticed by the smells of cooking and refreshed from a good night’s sleep following a gruelling week at work, Cloe set to making filter coffees for us all.  Sometimes she had brought home ready ground coffee from work.  At other times she ground the beans from scratch.  She filled the filter cones generously with coffee following the advice she gave to staff and customers alike daily which was that you can always dilute strong coffee with water, but if you make coffee too weak and watery there’s no way to make it right again.  The kettle just off the boil and allowed to cool slightly, she poured a little water over the grains to let them moisten and swell and then, before they could cool down or dry out, she filled the entire cone with water and let it drain through, taking the aromatic rich and eye-opening coffee goodness with it.  With an expert eye, she added just the right amount of milk for each person, remembering their preferences perfectly. It was, as Agent Cooper used to say in Twin Peaks a damned fine cup of coffee.

Breakfast served, we added condiments; chinese chilli and garlic sauce, indian green coriander chutney (both of which were a revelation with scrambled eggs) and tucked in.

With no sense of rush we carried on about the rest of our day’s business.  Watering plants, perhaps walking along Regents canal, a trip to Portobello Market or to some local shops.  Cloe revelled in her day off, sometimes luxuriating in being able to have a long and relaxing bath and not feeling the need to get changed out of her nightgown and dressing gown until the middle of the afternoon and yet as was her wont, carrying the look off with her usual aplomb.  Eadmund often had to travel out of London to visit farms and select cheese the following day so he would prepare for the busy week, packing his case, perhaps doing a bit of meditation or Tai Chi, pottering around the house, putting his things in order.  The kids had friends to meet up with or homework to do.  During the afternoon we all did separate things returning together for the evening when a proper, unhurried family meal would be prepared.  This might be a gloriously roasted rib of beef, chicken cooked in the French style (Cloe’s influence naturally) with lashings of butter and its cavity stuffed with whole lemons and a bunch of thyme.  Or it might be oven baked fish or gloriously enormous prawns bought the day before at the market near both Cloe & Eadmund’s shops.  Or dived scallops with a sweet chilli sauce that used to be a signature dish at Peter Gordon’s Sugar Club Restaurant.  The latter was a particular treat as it was one of Cloe’s favourite dishes.  Friends might be invited round or might not.

The sun set.  The air from the garden cooled.  Aperitifs were prepared: chilled Cremant de Bourogne or expertly mixed Gin and Tonics (the secret was a splash of fizzy mineral water at the end and lemon, never lime).  Wine uncorked.  The table set.  Eadmund would get one of the kids, but usually his daughter, to choose appropriate music.  ‘Something mellow but not too spacey.’

Rupert might join us, or again he might not.  We could be a group of five, six or up to sixteen depending on how many people had been invited over.  The meal, conversation around the table and a sense of relaxation at the end of a productive but peaceful day coming to a close, we might all retire upstairs with bowls of ice cream or whatever delicious pudding Cloe had concocted for us all to watch a film.

Eventually those who rose early would head to bed.  As the film finished, the others would follow, chorusing good nights if it wasn’t too late.

Night fell.  The house slept.

Sunshine, cicadas, hopes and dreams

pelion-greece1

 

It was the middle of July.

I had flown out from Gatwick to Skiathos to join Eadmund’s family for their annual holiday on mainland Greece.

To be invited to join them was an honour that had not been mine until we’d been together for about four years.  To say I was looking forward to it would be an understatement.

He met me at the airport.  We waited for their local taxi boat to take us back to the mainland.  It was baking hot and we spent lunchtime by the sea, basking in warm waters but in the shade to avoid sunburn quite so early on in my holiday.

Skimming over the waves, the sunlight glinting off them and all around me warmth and blue sea and sky, we made our way to their house by the sea and its jetty where his daughter sat sunbathing and reading.  As we clambered out of the little boat and manoeuvered my suitcase up onto the wooden boards, she greeted me with a hug and:

‘Welcome to Pelion!’

The family holiday had been sacrosanct.  With all the changes to the family dynamic, this one last vestige of the past had been preserved.  For a month, whatever might have changed back in London, they were all together as a five once more.  Until this year.  Rupert had already been with them for a week before my arrival.  I had my own annual holiday in Italy to attend.  As Cloe had wanted him to join the family this year, the invitation had also been extended to me.

It was an intoxicating week.  The weather was a little stormy for the first couple of days and we lit wood fires indoors and cooked.  Soon it became warmer and clearer.  We barbequed on their little private cove.  We took the boat down the coast to find tiny and beautiful chapels glittering with gold and frescoes.  We walked inland high above the sea amongst olives and pine trees.  We ate at their favourite restaurant walking there and then after a quick walk to the coast, swimming around the headland to the house again.  There were fireflies at night, glowing greenish white.  The sea had a beautiful phosphoresence as we swam in the dark.  We visited a bay littered with green agates.  We dived beneath rock arches under water.  We jumped off high staggered rocks into the sea.  We even visited a series of caves, blacker than any night with a tiny white beach at the end and pungently smelling of guano.

By night, Eadmund and I slept outside on the balcony, the sea breezes caressing our skin as we slept.  The gentle roar of the wind in the pine trees proving an effective lullaby.  We awoke with the dawn and watched the world turn from dark to silvery light and brighten into gold.  Then, fortified by cups of tea, we ran down to the beach to swim out into the bay and bask in the morning light and the cool, cool water.  We breakfasted on thick tangy yoghurt and rich treacly thyme honey with the most succulent fresh peaches.  We spent most of the day in and out of the water.

After lunch as the sound of the cicadas reached their loudest, we lay down to siesta together.  The house was silent with sleeping people avoiding the heat of the day.  We were outside, hardly private, and yet in the heat and stickyness of the middle of the day, lying skin on skin, langorous and languid touching became more sexually charged.  Relaxed with the freedom of being on holiday, in the sunshine and basking in warmth, we both experimented with things we had never tried before and felt more unified, more trusting and closer than ever because of it.

Intoxicated with love and sex and summer, we talked about our future.  It was no secret that a big stumbling block between us was the loud and insistent ticking of my biological clock.  The more in love with him I fell, the more every atom of my being wanted to carry his children.  It filled my heart and womb as we made love.  But he had been clear from the start.  He already had three children.  He was sensible of how much of his time, energy and freedom they had taken and he didn’t begrudge them a second of it.  But he didn’t want any more.  He didn’t want to start the whole process again just as he was getting glimpses of the freedom that beckons as your teenage children approach the time when they might leave home.

‘It’s the hardest and most rewarding thing I have ever done,’ he had told me in our early days,’I wouldn’t take it back for the world, but I’m glad to be where I am now, as they are growing up.  I can see myself getting a little bit of my time and my life back.  I don’t want to go back into giving that all up a second time.’

My hopes dashed, I had wept bitterly over this and my heart broke time and time again.  When everything between us felt so overwhelmingly right, how could he not share this dream with me?  How could he not see that this time, with me, it would be different, easier, that I would make it easier for him, sensible that he had already given the past twenty years to raising a family with Cloe.

But for all that I argued, persuaded, cajoled and begged, he was adamant.

Yet under the Grecian sun, lying in each others arms, sated and warmed, in hushed whispers, we approached the subject again.

‘I’m making no promises,’ he told me, ‘but I have never felt so close to someone as I do to you.  I’ve never felt a relationship to be as effortless as it is with you.  I know how much it means to you.  I will really and truly think hard about if I can go through being a father again.’

The sun had never shone brighter.  There had never been more beautiful music than the sound of the sea, the cicadas and the wind in the pine trees,  The whole glittering and brilliant little cove on which we holidayed took on a magical air as if it were the setting of a fairytale.  For a brief moment, it seemed that I might really be able to have it all: the man I adored, the passionate yet effortless relationship of my dreams and his baby too.

Years later, post break up, I took myself to the cinema to see Mamma Mia.  It promised to have sunshine, seaside, silly music and be camp and unrestrained.  I was depressed.  It should be a tonic, I thought.  As soon as the titles finished and the introduction of the first song began, I realised with a pang like a knife to the heart that the beautiful scenery I saw on screen was exactly the same as this magical place of my holiday, the place in which I had been the happiest I had been in my entire life.  The lump that rose in my throat threatened to choke me.  My shoulders shook with suppressed sobs as the music rose in happy, life affirming cadences.  I was in a cinema full of people who were laughing, sharing drinks and popcorn. This wasn’t a weepy movie.  There was no way I could give way to the tidal wave of emotion that I felt.  So I sucked it in, suppressed it and although trembling for ever minute that the film lasted, I got to the end and survived the bus journey home without giving the heartbreaking grief free reign.

The house was empty when I got home.  I was destined to be on my own again.  I turned round, grabbed my purse and headed up the road to the off licence.  I bought a 750ml bottle of gin and enough tonic water to match it.  I spent the rest of the evening drinking the whole lot and crying my eyes out as I mourned what could have been.