Monday, 30 November 2015

Me and My Girl - Memories in Milan

When E's godfather said he was going to Lake Como at half term with his youngest son for the Father-Son bonding time he had done with his other two, I said to N that he should do something similar with his girls. Then I had a re-think and thought, 'you know what, maybe I should go away and have Mother-Daughter bonding time'. After all, I don't do Girlie Getaways (i.e with girlfriends) for reasons I've never fully fathomed (maybe it's just that no-one's ever invited me...?!)

And so it was that I hatched a plan to go back to Milan with my lovely 16 year old first-born daughter to show her the land of her birth, the city where she first saw the light of day and which is reflected in her chosen Christian names. Beautiful, ugly, energetic, fashionable, ancient, modern, cultural, historic, multi-faceted Milan. In all its diversity and colour and glamorous association, it's not a bad 'Place of Birth' to have on your passport - and beats Isleworth, any day, where her sisters were born (with humble apologies to the good people of Isleworth).

Nevertheless, our arrival at Bergamo airport was less than ideal. The entire northern plain was cloaked in a heavy pea-souper fog so not a single tree, let alone the nearby mountains, was visible. Darkness descended as quickly as the torrential rain and by the time we had got the hire car sorted out (a crappy little thing covered in scrapes), we hit the rush hour traffic on the motorway. I had thought to bring a map of Milan but had forgotten to ask for a more general map from the car hire place - let alone a Sat Nav. My phone was refusing to load data and I was too mean to pay for extra abroad so I was driving blind in every sense - fog, directions, darkness, rain - and windscreen wipers which were making a god-awful noise and threatening to fly off at any minute. All in all, not a propitious start and just a tad stressful as I was also terrified of smashing up the car still further as I'd only got 3rd party insurance and E kept leaning across me in a dangerous and annoying manner - and always at a crucial junction - to take photos of road signs to post online to her mates. Somehow we eventually found our way to the hotel in the centre of the city, more by good luck than good judgement - and with just a smidgen of faltering memory from 15 years ago.

I'd chosen a hotel that had a car park and was in walking distance of all the places I wanted to show E. I had asked for a quiet room and we were shown up to a delightful room in the roof, just as I had hoped for. Most importantly, E loved it too and said it felt like our own mini apartment. It was perfect.

After the inevitable logging on to WiFi and turning on the TV for no particular reason, together with a change of clothes and general travel-weary faffing, we headed out in the pouring rain to find somewhere to eat. I had remembered enticing little bars and restaurants at every turn, yet somehow we kept going down the wrong streets where there was nothing but blank shuttered shops and ankle-deep puddles. The rain was still coming down and the stone-slabbed streets were shiny and empty. It was not quite what I had imagined for us, though atmospheric in its own way. After a few false turns, we eventually found ourselves in the Brera district and stumbled across a steamy-windowed restaurant full of diners with a cheerful waiter beckoning us in. I ordered pappardelle with porcini mushrooms as this is the season for them, and E ordered some home-made tortellini. So here we were, finally, eating our first meal in Italy together, travelling abroad together, just the two of us, for the first time. I savoured the moment.

The following day dawned with rain still lashing against our roof lights. It was cosy in the room and I could happily have stayed there all day, but Milan called. Time to get up! Our first appointment was with a friend whose parents had lived in the same apartment as us and who had had her first child, also a girl, within days of me. We were in sporadic Christmas-card touch but had not seen each other for 15 years and I was worried it would be awkward. We stopped to buy her a small bunch of flowers and some rose-petal encrusted chocolate (delicious despite sounding vile - we bought one for ourselves too) on our way up Corso Garibaldi. All over again, I was reminded how this was one of my favourite streets in Milan and it was also the one that had been my neighbourhood, my stomping ground. It's a wonderful street, full of interesting small shops and the occasional larger one (OVS which used to be Oviesse and was a sort of Primark where I bought cheap-as-chips outfits for my little newborn but which has been re-branded and glamourised in the intervening years). It feels like a community within a community. I pointed out my old hairdressers, now a bar, and a few other things of note before reaching my friend's apartment block.

I have to admit to being little nervous as we went up in the lift and rang the doorbell but when the door opened the years just rolled away and we had a lovely catch-up. Her daughter appeared, sweatily, after a session in the gym: she is a feisty girl who decided she'd had enough of Italian education and is doing the International Baccalaureate at a private school in England over the next couple of years. The down side of this is that she is having to eat school meals and has put on weight and broken out in spots (her words, not my observations!) and is busily trying to teach the English how to cook! As is the Italian way, my friend's father dropped by as I was there and they were about to go to the cemetery together to decorate and pay their respects to the grave of his wife/her mother for All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day (Il Giorni dei Morti).

Leaving them to their family duties, we progressed from here to our old apartment, just a short distance away. We met the new concierge as our old one, Benedetto, had apparently retired a year or two back. I introduced myself and Luca let us have a wander around and go up in the lift to the top floor where our apartment was. I couldn't believe that the same doormat was still sitting outside it, 15 years later! I thought of the day that my parents arrived to see their first grandchild, standing outside, excited and expectant. I'll never forget opening the door to them, baby E in my arms, tiny as a doll, and the look on their faces...I felt so very proud. I would have given anything to have knocked on the door and gone inside. It was such a wonderful place and I was so happy there. White washed walls, lacquered brown wooden floors, windows on three sides and a huge roof terrace overlooking the streets below and with a wonderful view of the Alps on a clear day. It was heaven: my own eyrie from which I could peer down upon the bustling city.

 Via della Moscova, 68:

We then called in at the bar a few doors down which had been our local and where we bought our tram tickets, our proseccos, our cappuccinos and our macchiatos. Franco and Caterina are still the owners, the decor has not changed one jot and I was left wondering if this was sad or really rather comforting? They recognised me instantly and gave me such a warm welcome, remembering better than I the last time we had met, 14 years ago, when E was a toddler and G was a babe in arms. We ordered prosecco, of course, and bowls of complimentary crisps, peanuts and other nibbles instantly appeared. We chatted away as if we had been there yesterday. It was so lovely to be back and the memories came pouring back in to my happy head and heart. We exchanged photo viewing on our phones of children, homes and holidays. Caterina urged me to speak to E in Italian on a regular basis when we got home. It was so natural to speak to her in Italian when we lived in Milan, so much less so when we returned to West London.


We tore ourselves away, reluctantly, after they had offered us the drinks on the house and weren't for dissuading - such a sweet gesture after all these years. We took Caterina's advice and headed up to Corso Como which has been massively re-developed since 1999 and is completely unrecognisable - but not before we stopped for lunch in a restaurant round the corner which had been our local trattoria/pizzeria and has now been turned into a sort of fast-food fish place called Il Pescetto. It was heaving, clearly hugely successful and we happily took our place in the queue to order calamari, home-made crisps and salad from a whole bank of fresh fish choices, selected by you then taken to the kitchen to be cooked however you want them.

Corso Como:

To save our already aching feet and to make the most of the travel pass we had bought from Franco and Caterina, we went down into the Metro at Garibaldi Station, next to the top end of Corso Como and sped back down to Lanza, near our hotel, where we then hopped on a tram to take us closer to Via Monte Napoleoni and the Golden Rectangle of Haute Couture - four streets which contain every top fashion designer you can think of from Prada to Versace, Armani to Valentino and everything in between.

E was in seventh Heaven just soaking up the atmosphere of elegance and unattainable wealth. Porsches and models abounded and at one point E found herself the centre of the Paparazzi's attention as suddenly camera's started snapping all around her. Confused, she looked over her shoulder only to find this tall man, dressed top to toe in black including dark glasses and jet black hair, looming over her with a bevy of blondes (other than my daughter, of course!) on his arms. She tried to get out of the way, as did I, but every which way we moved, it seemed to be the same direction as Mystery Man and all the swarm of eager photographers. Rest assured, I had no desire to be snapped though E harboured the notion that she would be splashed all over the newspapers and gossip magazines the following day! God forbid. (With a little bit of analysis of the things that were being shouted out, we retrospectively came to the conclusion that it was Gianluigi Buffon - a very famous Italian goalkeeper.) So, a short brush with fame and five minutes hanging around outside Prada while E tried to persuade me to follow him and his entourage into the shop (I had no inclination to spend 500 euros on a pair of Prada pants or something just to say I was in the company of some celebrity or other while I keyed in my pin number!) and we were free to move on to the slightly less high octane pedestrianised area that leads up towards the cathedral.

A brief stop in Kiko (make-up heaven for teenagers and more befitting of our budget than Prada) and a call from E's godfather to say they'd arrived and were heading into town, led us seamlessly to a meet in the Piazza Duomo. The rain had stopped, the skies were glowing pink and the silhouette of that magnificent cathedral still managed to take my breath away after all these years. It has been cleaned up since we lived here so the colours of the candoglia marble shine through again. Something I have just learned, in writing this, is that the final touches to the cathedral (which had taken generations to build) were only completed in the 20th century with the last gate being inaugurated on 6th January 1965: how perfect that E was born on 6th January, then, in this very city.

Having joined forces with the Godfather, we decided that it was the perfect moment for an aperitivo as the sun went down. We spotted a terrace high up on one of the buildings to the left of the cathedral and took the lift up to enjoy a drink with the Duomo as a magnificent backdrop.

As dark descended we headed back to the Brera district to find another atmospheric place to eat and end our evening. The streets, unlike the night before, were brimming with people and we fought through crowds gathered around live musicians playing in the narrow streets of this attractive, arty district in the shadow of the world renowned Pinacoteca Brera  to get to our restaurant, Il Cestino.

By the time we sat down, my feet were literally throbbing, and so were my heart and soul - but for different reasons. It was simply wonderful to be back in a place that I loved so much, meant so much and which represents one of the happiest times of my life.

Tomorrow was another day, and there were still more things I wanted to share with E before heading up to the tranquillity of Lake Como and a complete contrast to city life. But I'll tell you about that the next time...

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Jack Savoretti - Back Where I Belong (Official Audio)

Jack Savoretti is just one of those musicians who makes me feel I'm in love - though with him or someone else is not quite clear! That raspy, reedy voice, full of emotion; the unkempt locks, the cheeky English Christian name with the sexy Italian surname. Marriage made in heaven. Add the lyrics to the tunes and I'm just in this 'other place'. Another me, another life, back in the days of dreams in places like Paris, Chantilly, Toulouse, Salamanca, the Alps and Pyrenees, Padua, Venice, Milan - where life stretched ahead in all its wonder and excitement, full of plans and possibilities.

It's a far cry from a toasted cheese and onion sandwich on my lonesome in Morrisons in Chapel-en-le-Frith, as I was yesterday lunchtime. The piazzas, palazzos and pizzas; the romance and risotto; love and the Left Bank; shenanigans in Chantilly; sunrises, sunsets, singing, dancing and frisbee-throwing freedom in Salamanca; snows, snogs and fogs in the mountains; friends made and loves lost.

The dreams of fame and fortune have been lost to family, my legacy lying now in my children. Some days I look back on a life well-lived; others I weep at a world of wasted hopes. But if I listen to the likes of Jack Savoretti, my spirits rise and I feel life is still out there to be grabbed. Every precious moment of it.

Each of us is unique; some of us are paired in a common experience. Whatever we have lived, it has shaped and formed us. The trick is knowing how to turn that to our advantage. So let the music play on, adding a depth to our earthly experience and our everyday reality that only a good tune and a great lyric can create.

Friday, 25 September 2015

Summer? What Summer?

So where did the summer go? One moment it was all ahead of us, the next it seems a lifetime away. Where did you go, what did you do? Sizzling sunshine and sandy beaches, turquoise waters and tanned tummies; warm nights and wafting about in linen. Is that long-dreamed of idyll what you found, or were you rain-soaked in Reading or Redditch?

Well, I guess I found something in between: some rain, some sunshine, some warmth, some cold. South west France was never going to be the best place to choose a holiday home to escape the meteorological lows of the High Peak. The same wayward and increasingly unpredictable Atlantic influences haunt its shores as they do the whole of the west side of the UK. What happens in south-west France usually heads to north-west England eventually, with a few degrees taken off the temperature. Sadly, though, the June/July Europe-wide heatwave never made it to Manchester - and it broke in south-west France the day we arrived. As we opened the gate and pulled in to the parched remains of a garden, our neighbours popped up the other side of the hedge to inform us that there had not been a drop of water in two sweltering months. The following morning we woke to rain. Yes, siree, I had arrived, dragging with me my heavy chains of Bad Weather Curse.

Only I could go to Dubai in February and get the worst floods for 50 years (it's a desert last time I looked); or to the Philippines on honeymoon and be plagued by tropical storms; or on safari in Kenya in torrential rain, digging our mini-van out of a mud-swilled ditch; or on a trekking and white-water rafting holiday in Nepal where we had to buy ponchos to protect us (I still have them hanging up in the cloakroom) and the river was a brown, swollen mess after days of downpours; or Majorca three times in the rain; or Thailand under leaden skies; or New Zealand in the worst summer the southern hemisphere has had in years. You get the picture? The moral of the tale being: DON'T GO ON HOLIDAY WITH ME!

Yet I can't complain. I am lucky to go away - many don't have that luxury, of which I am only too  aware. And a change is as good as a rest as that old adage sagely says. So here are some photos of the sojourn abroad, in a place that I love, come rain or shine.

Arrival in St Malo - rain and grey skies again!

Lunch stop on the journey down - sun at last!
Bay of Arcachon
Local beach under threatening skies

Aperitif time!

Sunset in Biarritz

Quiet contemplation in the waves

Handstands on deserted sands
Is that a crab?

Path through the dunes

Tom Daley eat your heart out...

More gymnastics, more threatening skies and Reggie Perrin...

Silhouettes at sunset

Birthday Girl

When did they get so grown up?

Lounging around on a lilo


Close encounters of the canine kind
Celebrating GCSE results

Sand art

The Final Sunset

Return to Blighty

Thursday, 4 June 2015

A Walk in the Woods

Thursday 4th June

Is there anything finer than a walk through an English woodland in dappled sunlight where bluebells scent the warm air and blur the vista with their soft haze?

When you add buttercup-filled meadows, heather-strewn uplands, white and red hawthorn blossom, sunshine-yellow gorse and the cool babble and rush of a shallow river, you can be forgiven for thinking you've found a little bit of heaven on earth. 

This is how it was on my walk this early summer's afternoon: the mind and senses fully engaged with the sheer serene beauty of the landscape. Lily was giddy with it all, galloping around like her life depended on it, splashing through the stream, crashing through the undergrowth, hurtling along the meadow paths like a greyhound chasing the hare. Man or dog, it was impossible not to feel simply happy to be alive. 

So English...

Spears of fresh green ferns uncurling through the bluebells

Sun and shade

Purple haze

Dappled light in the woodland

Open grasslands after the woods

Hawthorn in flower in the hedgerows

A quiet country graveyard with someone remembered...

Resting in peace

Lily still stalking, even in the river! It's a gene thing...

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